ARCTIC Review: No-Frills Survival Done Right

In which Mads Mikkelsen spends most of the movie dragging his co-star.

You’d be hard-pressed to find a better actor for a survival movie than Mads Mikkelsen. The guy’s chiseled features, stoic gaze, and quiet melancholy seem custom-designed to be placed in opposition to impossibly harsh elements, on screen at least. So it’s unsurprising he was cast in Arctic, a survival movie that isn’t a reinvention of the genre - just a really strong example of it.

Not to be confused with Polar, also starring Mikkelsen, Arctic opens some time after Mikkelsen’s supply pilot Overgård has crashed his plane in the inhospitable North. Through smart improvisation and rigorous scheduling, Overgård has managed to stay alive thus far inside the plane's crashed fuselage, while attempting to signal for rescue. When a rescue helicopter arrives in the middle of a blizzard, promptly crashing, Overgård retrieves its injured pilot and attempts to nurse her back to health. But medical supplies run out fast, and discovering a supply camp on his unconscious companion’s map of the region, Overgård sets out to drag her across the icy mountain range to safety. 

The trek that follows is, as with most survival films, episodic in nature, each step further dampening Overgård's hope for survival. There’s little you haven’t seen here - frostbite, snow caves, gangrene, pneumonia, crevasses, cliffs, storms, and polar bears all make appearances - but Arctic deals robustly with each new challenge. You’ll wince, you’ll cry, and you won’t ever laugh, except maybe out of relief at Overgård's few minor victories. Job well done.

What Arctic - as with most survival films - really shows us is how fragile we are as human beings. At any given point in our lives, we’re one injury, one illness, one freak bit of misfortune away from death, and it’s only the perks of civilisation that (usually) prevent such things from taking our lives. In the Arctic, and in Arctic, that help isn’t there, and the danger feels all that much more palpable. 

Mikkelsen is, predictably, excellent in his nearly-wordless role, going from grim determination to the edge of defeat. Remarkably, we basically learn nothing about his character - his sole costar (apart from a corpse-only appearance by an actor who isn't even listed on the film's IMDb page) María Thelma Smáradóttir, who utters three words in the entire film, at least has a photo of her family to base her character on. All we know, really, is that he’s resourceful in a crisis, and that he considers the unlikely survival of two people more important than the likely survival of just one. The lack of development doesn’t detract from the story, though, or from Mikkelsen’s performance. As a blank slate, Overgård is a surrogate for the audience - a man reduced to his most basic primal and basic need to survive. This kind of thing is an opportunity for actors to dig deep, and Mikkelsen does so both figuratively and literally.

Improbably, Arctic is directed by Joe Penna, who’s better-known as MysteryGuitarMan on YouTube. This is Penna's feature debut, and it’s a strong choice of debut, taking a lean script and turning it into a functional, visual-driven narrative. In the first act, Penna creates a strong sense of geography around Overgård's camp; as the film progresses, he presents each obstacle with the barest minimum required. Like Overgård, Penna’s direction is straightforward and focused on the essentials, which is the right way to play this kind of thing.

Shot mostly on location in Iceland, Arctic depicts its setting in a manner as beautiful as it is deadly. Penna makes the most of Iceland’s sweeping vistas, constantly reminding us of how small and fragile human life is when in an environment the body isn’t equipped to withstand. It’s a testament to the power of location shooting - one can imagine the greenscreened studio version of this movie - and it makes Overgård's struggle that much more immediate.

Arctic comes to a close with a final shot that’s perfectly timed and orchestrated to lend it a sense of ambiguity. It’s one of the few elements that sets it apart from a more typical survival film, sharing DNA with Joe Carnahan's underrated 2012 film The Grey. There’s not a huge amount else remarkable about Arctic, but that doesn’t matter. It’s a rock-solid film, and sometimes it’s enough for a film to simply do what it says on the box. Arctic promises a Mads Mikkelsen survival movie, and it's exactly as good as that suggests.