What does survival really mean? Does it merely mean finding a safe routine in an unsafe situation? Or does it mean thriving in the worst of the worst scenarios? Out in the Arctic, Overgård (Mads Mikkelsen) is alone and stranded. He’s the sole survivor of a plane crash and has “settled” into a routine of sending out SOS messages, hunting for fish, and taking refuge in a makeshift camp. The odds of someone responding and finding him are one-in-a-million, but he stays alive, sheltered from the unknown and heavier dangers the terrain presents.
Hope comes briefly, but unfortunately, that comes to a crashing end quickly. In the aftermath lies a live and unconscious helicopter passenger (Maria Thelma Smáradóttir). His camp is not suitable for two. Now in possession of a land map, Overgård makes the hard but necessary decision of traversing the Arctic with an extra body in search of someone…anyone who can bring his nightmare to an end.
Arctic thrives off of simplicity. It is a no-frills movie using the power and talent of its star first and foremost to create something that belongs somewhere near the top of its subgenre. Survival at its most basic and rawest.
Direction is important for any film, but perhaps no more so than for a survival one. It is imperative for a viewer to feel right there with the subject, whether that be in a forest, at sea, or in the case of Arctic, in subzero temperatures. Easiest way to make that happen? Authenticity. Director Joe Penna shot his movie in Iceland, putting his skeleton cast right in the heart of the storm, no punches pulled, or tricks employed. And it is not so much a swirling wind chill as it sometimes is a stark and silent stretch of shooting, with the only audible noise being the beeping of a timer. I don’t believe Penna and his cinematographer Tómas Örn Tómasson went in necessarily in having a goal of making a super beautiful feature, but rather, honoring the subject matter in a minimalist approach. They end up achieving both.
If you presumed Arctic was cut and dry with how it approaches its story, you would be correct. Unlike, say, The Grey, which was a survival movie that couldn’t quite decide if it wanted to be a straightforward one versus wolves or go all in on metaphorical existentialism, Arctic positions itself as very A to B. So much so, that the need to tell its story with dialogue is pretty unnecessary. Penna relies on a bit of mystery (there’s no flashback as to the cause of the plane crash), atmosphere, visuals, diegetic sound, and a score composed by Joseph Trapanese to fill the void where talking would be found.
Those attributes are all solid, but honestly, Arctic is only as good as it is due to the one-man wrecking crew known as Mikkelsen. Not to take anything away from Smáradóttir (her presence does jolt the movie and Mikkelsen’s character himself into another level) or the polar bear, but they are merely window dressing to the Danish thespian. Every setback Mikkelsen experiences on his trek to be rescued is visibly registered. He is one of the perfect people for a work of this nature; famous enough to “sell” but not so famous that he can’t slide into a fairly blank, everyman-ish character. Maybe Overgård’s pain and drain feels so authentic because it is.
As said by a noteworthy author, survival depends on what you do, not what you think. That is the base idea Arctic works off of. Led by a masterful Mikkelsen, Arctic is a cold, quiet, and effectively simple survival film.
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I loved this movie and I’m pretty sure it cracked my Top 20 last year. It is simple and straightforward but I was really it mainly due to (as you mentioned) Mads’ stellar performance.
He definitely made the movie for me. Not sure I care about it as much without him!