A man (Mads Mikkelsen) stranded in the Arctic after a helicopter crash must decide whether to remain in the relative safety of his makeshift camp or to embark on a deadly trek through the unknown.
Joe Penna’s Arctic delivers what might be called Max Mads: a sustained and sinew-stiffening hit of the Danish actor, ideal for the Mikkelsen connoisseur.
This snowbound endurance thriller, screening in the Midnight strand at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, features the star of The Hunt and NBC’s Hannibal at his most primally charismatic in the role of the sole survivor of a light aircraft crash, somewhere north of the 66th parallel.
Some time has evidently passed since the accident that stranded him there, and without warning or explanation the film drops us into this man’s daily routine: an endless round of checking fishing holes for Arctic trout, scanning radio frequencies and maintaining the huge SOS he has gouged into a plain of ice and basalt. A giant polar paw-print close to camp counts as an existential threat.
Daylight is constant, so the activities of each day are marked by a pip-pip from his electronic watch. At the end of the day, when he retreats into the shell of his aeroplane and pulls off his footwear, only eight frostbite-blackened toes remain. The countdown is underway to the worst.
As in Robert Zemeckis’s Cast Away, which dropped off Tom Hanks on a desert island, and JC Chandor’s All Is Lost, which confined Robert Redford to a capsizing yacht, Arctic finds excitement in competence. Mikkelsen’s character, whose name is Overgård, repeatedly staves off danger with his wits and will, rather than tackling it head on: some of the most thrilling moments in the entire film come from watching him take sensible precautions you’d never have thought of yourself.
But things change when he finds another survivor, a nameless woman (Maria Thelma Smáradóttir) left badly injured and barely conscious in a helicopter crash.
This discovery confronts Overgård with an unavoidable and thrillingly onerous moral dilemma: should he use the supplies from the helicopter for his own benefit, which might eke out his own life for a little longer – or rescue her, making survival yet more strenuous, but also giving himself something more to live for? The implications of his choice are made vividly clear in the various mettle-testing crises that ensue.
Arctic is terrifically enjoyable up to a point: its landscapes ring with brutal grandeur (the film was shot in Iceland), and the sense of danger is palpable and established with a sure directorial hand.
And Mikkelsen really is the ideal leading man for this: with almost no dialogue to work with, he invests Overgård’s struggle with pathos, humour and blizzard-defying resolve, chuckling drily at some miserable irony, and blissfully chomping through a clump of just-discovered dry ramen noodles as if they were a freshly baked pain au beurre.
Yet as the plot wears on, and the peril ramps up, the two characters’ suffering starts to feel less like a heroic ordeal than a sadistic running joke at their expense, and grim developments that should have drawn gasps give rise to groans, or worse.
The film’s very last scene, in particular, badly misjudges a pivotal moment in the story that has the effect of making the entire preceding hour and a half of tenacity and strife feel oddly throwaway: you know exactly the effect the film was aiming for, but the timing and framing are unintentionally comic.
This is Penna’s debut feature, and he has set himself a high bar which he just about scrapes over, with Mikkelsen giving the entire project a super-strength leg up.
Robbie Collin, the Telegraph, 11th May 2018.
“Arctic,” a notably quiet and captivating slow-build adventure film, starring Mads Mikkelsen as a researcher-explorer who has crash-landed in the frozen wilderness, is the latest example of a genre we know in our bones, one that feels so familiar it’s almost comforting. It’s another solo survival movie, one more tale of a shipwrecked pawn that derives its spirit and design from the mythic fable of the form, “Robinson Crusoe.”
The challenge of watching a stranded man toil away on his own, of course, is that it seems, on the surface, to be inherently undramatic. That’s why nearly every one of these movies has had a buried hook, a way of turning a barren situation into compulsively watchable and suspenseful storytelling. “Robinson Crusoe” (the novel, published in 1719, and its various film versions) set the template by presenting its tale as one of human ingenuity — in essence, it prophesied the Industrial Revolution in the form of a stripped-down one-man show. “Cast Away” had Wilson the soccer ball and Tom Hanks’ plucky enterprise. “127 Hours” had James Franco, as a hiker trapped in a rocky wedge, nattering into his video camera. “All Is Lost,” set on a sailboat adrift at sea, had Robert Redford’s finely aging regret and his character’s technical instincts. “Robinson Crusoe” had Friday.
he hook of “Arctic,” which was shot in Iceland, is that it has none of those things. It’s the first feature directed by Joe Penna, the protean Brazilian video auteur who became a sensation on YouTube, so you might expect it to be made with a touch of 21st-century flash. On the contrary: Penna tells this tale of self-rescue with a plainly carpentered austerity that makes it feel, at times, like you’re seeing an ice-cap remake of “A Man Escaped.” There are no cut corners, no overly blatant only-in-the-movies gambits. Mikkelsen’s stranded pilot has little to rely on beyond his will, so we feel at every step that he could truly be us.
The result is that it takes a bit of time for “Arctic” to get rolling. It opens not with a bang but with an eerie plunge into the anti-dramatic post-crash void: Here is Mikkelsen’s lone survivor (he is never named), in his dirty insulated jacket, scratching at the black ground beneath the snow, the camera revealing that he has etched the giant letters “SOS” into the white tundra. The landscape is mostly flat, but in the distance are streaked gray mountains, and all we need to know about his predicament is explained by a small orange-and-white plane, of no marked nationality, that sits nearby, with one of its wings snapped in half. (He eats, sleeps, and takes storm refuge in the body of the plane.)
The erecting-civilization-from-the-ground-up ingenuity, what there is of it, has already happened. Mikkelsen has rigged up a fishing line that pokes into a hole in the ice, and whenever a fish bites, it sends a signal by clanking a piece of metal attached to the line. Mikkelsen keeps the caught fish carefully stacked in a frozen locker, and each day he removes one and slices it open, scraping out a meal of sushi. There’s a brief shot of a piece of paper on which he ticks off the days; it indicates that he’s been there for about two months. (That would match the length of his beard.) At one point he sees a giant paw print in the snow, then catches a glimpse of the polar bear who made it, from a great distance.
Penna works in what you might call a gratifyingly prosaic style. He doesn’t wow you (though the film, in its level way, is elegantly shot). But he doesn’t cheat you, either, so you come to trust the gravity of his nuts-and-bolts storytelling. The movie is built around the gruff mystique of Mads Mikkelsen, who never betrays a hint of showiness. Mikkelsen’s height and stalwart presence fill the frame, and his face looks inward and outward at the same time; it’s tense, focused, ravaged, not afraid to be a little blank. He speaks just a few words (of English), yet his rapt desperation consumes the viewer. At one point he has to pull a heavy load up an unexpected rocky hill, and he can’t do it; the character isn’t strong enough. The polar bear shows up again, this time at closer range, and watching this superb scene I realized how much I’ve come to expect the hidden reassurance of digital imagery. If this polar bear is digital, it certainly fooled me.
Okay, there is one hook — sort of. But as these things go, it’s notably minimalist. It would be hard to write a review and not mention it, but it’s a bit of a spoiler, so here goes: A helicopter appears in the distance, but it battles the same icy wind that Mikkelsen’s plane presumably did. The chopper crash-lands, leaving a survivor (played by the Icelandic actress Maria Thelma Smáradôttir). She is out cold, with a serious gash in her side. Mikkelsen staples the wound shut, and she remains, for more or less the entire film, in a state of mute semi-consciousness. She never becomes his “companion,” but her very existence teaches him something about existence.
Five years ago, “All Is Lost” premiered at Cannes to deserved acclaim. But when it opened later that fall, the film was a noteworthy commercial disappointment (it made just $6 million domestic), and the awards magic never happened for Robert Redford. I think I understood why. “All Is Lost” was ingeniously made, and a true experience, yet the stark fact is that it was slow. “Arctic,” as effective as it is, may face a similar challenge (at least in the U.S.), precisely because of the rough-hewn, trudging-through-the-tundra, one-step-at-a-time honesty with which Joe Penna works. The movie, in its indie way, is the anti-“Cast Away.” Yet that’s what’s good and, finally, moving about it. It lets survival look like the raw experience it is.
OWEN GLEIBERMAN, Variety, May 11th 2018.