Danish star Mads Mikkelsen (The Hunt) virtually plays a lone hand in this grim tale of endurance and survival set in the frozen wastelands of the North Pole. Arctic recalls other survival dramas like All is Lost, in which Robert Redford played a lone role as a stranded sailor, or Cast Away with Tom Hanks stuck on a desert island with only a volleyball for company. Here the setting is much more extreme and the stakes are a lot higher.
Mikkelsen plays Overgard, a pilot whose light plane crashes in the Arctic. We never see the plane crash, and are thrown straight into the drama a few days afterwards. Overgard has set up a rudimentary camp in the wreckage where he remains relatively sheltered from the elements. He’s established a daily routine that becomes a little repetitive. He slowly uses rocks to erect a huge SOS sign, he tries to get a signal on the radio, and he fishes through a hole in the ice.
Then he sees a rescue helicopter approaching, but it spins out of control and crashes. Overgard reluctantly makes his way to the crash site where he finds the pilot (Thelma Smaradottir) badly injured. He manages to effect some basic first aid and takes her back to his plane. Then he tries to drag the badly wounded woman across the harsh snowy wilderness using part of the fuselage as a makeshift toboggan. And somewhere not too far away is lurking a polar bear, which poses a threat.
Arctic is the first feature film from Brazilian director Joe Penna. He began his career making short films for YouTube and directing music videos. Penna co-wrote the sparse script with his regular collaborator Ryan Morrison, who also edited the film. This is visual storytelling, and the film is stripped back to the essentials with minimal narrative and dialogue.
Shot on location in Iceland, the film looks great thanks to the crisp widescreen lensing of cinematographer Tomas Orn Tomasson. He brings the harsh environment to life, which enhances the dangers. This is an immersive and visceral film. You can virtually feel the cold. Joseph Trapanese’s score suits the tone of the piece.
Mikkelsen is on the screen the whole time and held my attention with a committed and quite physical performance. He eschewed the use of stuntmen, which lends an authenticity to the gruelling survival story. This is a virtuoso turn from Mikkelsen, who’s often cast as the villain. He delivers an understated and largely internal performance. Penna doesn’t give backstories for the two characters; but I don’t really need any as I was fully invested in their desperate struggle to survive.
Arctic marks an auspicious debut for Penna, and it’ll be interesting to see how he follows this film.
Director: Joe Penna
Cast: Mads Mikkelsen, Thelma Smaradottir
Release Date: 14 February 2019 (limited)
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Greg King has had a life long love of films. He has been reviewing popular films for over 15 years. Since 1994, he has been the film reviewer for BEAT magazine. His reviews have also appeared in the Herald Sun newspaper, S-Press, Stage Whispers, and a number of other magazines, newspapers and web sites. Greg contributes to The Blurb on film