A marooned man’s survival in the Arctic gets much more complicated when a helicopter crashes attempting to rescue him. He decides to save the lone survivor, taking her life into his hands and, in doing so, igniting anew his purpose to live. The measured survivalist story Arctic is as cold and quiet as the frigid tundra for which it is named, its protagonist Overgård (played with silent ferocity of will by the ever-reliable Mads Mikkelsen) is a man of few words but powerful convictions, convictions which bleed through the veteran actor’s pores, adding soul and pathos to this testament of the human spirit in times of great adversity.
The film from first-time director Joe Penna begins in media res with Overgård already stranded for an unknown amount of days (though likely sometimes in the weeks to months range), living off the relative spoils of ice fishing and using a hand crank radio on a scheduled daily interval to call for rescue. When the light on his device suddenly leaps from red to green, hope arrives in the form of a chopper slicing its way to Overgård through a bruising tempest. Alas, the bird proceeds to spin out of control and crash, killing one pilot and severely injuring the other (a corpselike Maria Thelma Smáradóttir). Knowing his new compatriot in survival is not long for the world without immediate medical attention, Overgård musters the courage to brave the frosty no man’s land in the hopes of reaching a seasonal outpost, a treacherous number of days march away.
Everything from the hangman’s nip of frostbite to a polar bear attack attempts to impede Overgård’s icy trial, Penna offering just enough shots of adrenaline to heighten the tension in this otherwise deliberately-paced character-driven thriller. The economy of storytelling succeeds in having its ice cream cake and eating it too, delivering as both a legitimately nervy survival thriller and contemplative character study about the psychology of survival and survival ethics.
A first time feature filmmaker, Penna’s style is much more in line with the storytelling sensibilities of J.C. Candlor’s All is Lost (a brilliant exercise in sailing survivalist minimalism led by a rarely-better Robert Redford) than the gonzo pop-art circus that is Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours (also brilliant, for entirely different reasons), though there’s a certain scene that is destined to remind viewers of Aron Ralston’s infamous pop-lock-and-drop-it moment that had audience members dropping like flies.
The assertive technical intelligence of Arctic, shot on location in Iceland, help pull us into this freezer-blasted world, leaving us snow-blind to the real world comforts of catering and trailers and stranding us with the skeleton cast and crew. Penna shots at an immersive 2.39:1 aspect ratio that stretches the vast nothingness of the landscape to intimidating breadth while Tómas Örn Tómasson’s cinematography finds diverse ways to present a man trudging through infinite white. Composer Joseph Trapanese (Oblivion, Straight Outta Compton) compliments this with an ethereal score that amplifies the vast alienness of the expanse that Overgård is forced to overtake.
Everything is fastened by a knockout performance from Mikkelsen who despite having basically no dialogue, emotes powerfully through gesture, expression, and steely nerve, the rugged actor holding nothing back as everything comes to a head. It all leads to a gut-wrenching finale that sneaks up and pummels you and though Arctic may be familiar in broad strokes, the telling of it feels, much like the Arctic itself, exceedingly fresh and strangely beautiful.
CONCLUSION: Mads Mikkelsen leads this low-broiling survival story with wordless aplomb, rounding up an engaging thriller with an emotion edge that’ll sneak up on you like hypothermia.
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