Here is a movie so sparse, it can be difficult to gauge at a critical level — for me, at least. “Survival” movies can be tricky, and I spent a lot of time thinking as I watched Arctic whether I would like it better or worse if it truly ended on the bleak note it seemed to be headed toward.
It’s a little easier to imagine the response of the general movie-going public. This is no blockbuster. There are no hordes of people eager to see a film with all of two characters, one of them with no more than one or two lines beyond injury-inducing moans; the other himself spending most of the film with little to no dialogue. Whether the final shot of the film qualifies as pandering — after the film studiously avoids it up to that point — is up for debate.
I suppose you could call this Cast Away in the North, except that Tom Hanks was (and is) a bona fide movie star; Mads Mikkelsen is decidedly not. He is, on the other hand, a deservedly well-respected character actor, who spends the duration of Arctic with a grim determination. And, unlike a movie like Cast Away, Arctic neither has its character talking to keep himself company, nor includes any harrowing crash scenes to maximize the excitement factor.
That’s not to say nothing exciting happens in Arctic — a movie, which, curiously, first-time feature director Joe Penna (who also wrote the script) originally conceived of as set on Mars. But instead of forcing a lot of expositional context into the script, the story was stripped to its barest bones by switching it to a character stranded by a small plane crash in the Arctic. We are introduced to Overgard, in fact, in the middle of a daily routine that has clearly gotten mind numbingly repetitive for him. Catching a live fish from beneath the ice qualifies as a bit of excitement.
This is where patience is rewarded, though, because it’s this entry into the story that strengthens what exciting things do happen: an attempted rescue helicopter crashes nearby, leaving Overgard to find new purpose in nursing an injured woman back to health. Or at least, he’s trying. Days go on even after this, until he feels left with no choice but to walk the woman through the Arctic mountains to a seasonal outpost station.
Meanwhile, as he pulls this injured woman along on a sled, Overgard endures incredibly harsh weather, to the point of frostbite on many extremities; unfamiliar landscape that can be surprisingly dangerous; and a wandering polar bear that, in one scene, scared the living shit out of me. He sees that bear in the distance early on, and I was reminded of “Chekhov’s gun,” the idea that if you see a gun early on in the story, it best be part of the story later. I knew that bear would come back, and it was an effective tool for heightening tension.
And to be sure, Arctic is tense. It’s not especially exceptional as far as survivalist movies go, even if the shoot was apparently the most difficult of Mikkelsen’s career. It’s well constructed and stands up against most other films like it, but setting it in the Arctic still doesn’t make it special. This is simply a really good movie for people who enjoy movies of this sort.
I did wonder a lot about the production, which was shot on location in Iceland. What was it like working with that polar bear? How difficult was the whole shoot for the actors? Surely this was a physical challenge for everyone. The acting itself certainly commands attention — especially on the part of Mikkelsen, who is in every frame — but the characters here don’t exactly have wide emotional range. Mekkelsen does get a couple of chances to emote, at least.
I do keep thinking about the film’s parting shot — I can’t quite decide how I feel about it. It feels intended to allow the audience to decide whether or not it’s a happy ending. It’s ambiguous in a way more frustrating than compelling, a single second that perhaps changes everything. Or does it? If nothing else, a film this quiet holding interest from start to finish is an impressive feat.