A film review by Craig J. Koban March 19, 2019

RANK: #13


2019, R, 97 mins.


Mads Mikkelsen as Overgĺrd  /  Maria Thelma Smáradóttir as Young Woman

Directed by Joe Penna  /  Written by Ryan Morrison and Penna



There have been far too many man versus nature outdoor survival thrillers over the years to seemingly keep track of, which means that any filmmaker trying to impart some much needed freshness of approach in the well worn genre most certainly has their work cut of for them.  

Nevertheless, I'm a real sucker for these type of films, especially when they reduce ordinary people down to their primal essence in a desperate attempt to stave off thirst, hunger, predators, and eventually death.  What makes the new Icelandic survival film ARCTIC so compelling amidst a very crowded pack is that it's a brutally efficient and economically directed thriller that also just happens to feature a truly and thanklessly superb - and mostly non-verbal - performance by Mads Mikkelsen.   

Watching ARCTIC I was constantly reminded of one of the finest survival films ever made in J.C. Chandor's ALL IS LOST, and right from the get-go ARCTIC commands and deserves such worthy comparisons.  Both films are ostensibly one-man performances shows (a little more in ALL IS LOST's case, more on that in a bit), both deal with stranded men nightmarishly segregated far from civilization in the worst environmental extremes imaginable, and both are compulsively watchable as nearly silent films that don't require much in the way of narrative exposition and dialogue to lead the charge.  Whereas Robert Redford was stranded solo in his sailboat in the middle of the ocean, Mikkelsen's character finds himself contrastingly marooned in, yes, the arctic, which arguably is the worse of both.  Films like ALL IS LOST and ARCTIC prove that old school location shooting and natural and practical production values speak volumes over digital fakery when it comes to immersive atmosphere. 



Best of all, Brazilian born filmmaker Joe Penna doesn't waste any time with wasteful and unnecessary introductory story or character particulars.  Instead, he thrusts viewers directly into the hellish ordeal of its main character.  Who he is and how he ended up in the arctic is almost beside the point; ARCTIC is about him constantly dealing with the anxiety plaguing daily struggles of battling against hopelessness and dying.  Here's all you really need to know: Mikkelsen plays a man stranded somewhere in the Arctic Circle awaiting salvation and rescue.  He's been there for quite some time, considering that he seems pretty calm and collected in his daily rituals (plus, we see early on that he has developed a highly elaborate and ingenious pulley system of catching multiple fish underneath him via a carved out waterhole).  When he's not subsiding on melted ice water and raw fish, he usually journeys away from his crashed plane fuselage (his only home and makeshift shelter from the elements) to send out radio SOS signals in hopes that someone will save him.   

Oh, and there's a man hungry polar bear lurking around to further add to his incalculable stress levels. 

The man's luck changes for the potential better when a helicopter comes swooping in one fateful day, but storm clouds and winds impede its ability to safely land and culminates in - dammit! - the aircraft crash landing and killing one of the pilots.  Initially, this seems like a pretty nasty case of bad luck, but he manages to make the most of it by salvaging what he can from the helicopter, like a much needed supply sled, flares, and Ramen noodles.  Unfortunately for him, he discovers a horrifically injured female pilot in the helicopter that falls into a coma, and being the good chap that he is, the man decides to make it his mission to ensure both his and her survival while hatching out a daring plan to get them to safety, no matter what the costs.  After he studies some maps from the helicopter, the man realizes that the pair stand a better chance of being spotted if they make a very long two day trek on foot away from his base camp.  Predictably, since one of them can't walk and is unconscious, this complicates matters immensely. 

Visually, ARCTIC is pretty superbly helmed by Penna, who manages to instantly and authentically convey the limitless scope of the snow covered and inhospitable terrain that surrounds the stranded man and, in turn, just how pathetically isolated is he from anyone and everything.  Filmed in Iceland doubling for the North Pole, ARCTIC always feels frighteningly and tangibly foreboding on a sheer level of environmental verisimilitude, which is greatly embellished by the lushly picturesque, yet haunting cinematography by Tomas Orn Tomasson and composer Joseph Trapanese's low key, yet gripping score.  Penna also manages to find ways of drumming up despair and suspense in the most nonchalant throwaway moments, like tight close-ups of the man at his most downtrodden or simple glances at his frost bitten limbs or the manner that he deals with unimaginable hunger and feels like he's just had a find cuisine after he gorges on a raw package of hard Ramen noodles.  All of these little micro-scenes add to a larger kaleidoscope of this man's teeth clenched self-preservation.  He simply feels he'll get out of this scenario...no matter what. 

Of course, no one-man performance showpiece would be complete without, obviously enough, a confident actor at the helm, and the 53-year-old Mikklelsen is rather brilliantly cast here and lets his physicality relay most of the dramatically potent scenes (and, again, with minimal to no dialogue).  The Danish actor has made a career of playing hypnotically creepy on-screen villains, from (most famously on the big screen) La Chiffre in the modern James Bond reboot CASINO ROYALE to (on the small screen) thanklessly making the iconic role of a serial cannibal killer all is own in the TV series HANNIBAL.  He seems equal to the challenge of fully and credibly inhabiting a character here that's really given no backstory of personality quirks to help flesh out who this poor individual really is.  Still, Mikkelsen gives an absolutely bravura performance that gives ARCTIC its emotional heartbeat in chronicling this individual's unwavering motivation, emotional fortitude, and raw physical strength to get out of his horrible pickle of a situation. 

Where ARCTIC somewhat flounders a bit in comparison to the masterful ALL IS LOST is in the way that it seems to lack a raw and chilling nerve to commit to an ending and final shot that it really wants to (the final split second of the film feels like a bit of a cheat that, well, lacks balls).  Plus, it could easily be said that ARCTIC does suffer from the notion that its premise and concept isn't hardly revelatory for the genre, and the type of obstacles that the main faces are pretty obligatory (you just know that he's going to go mano-a-mano with that damn polar bear at some point, and even though the sequence is nerve-wrackingly intense, it seems somewhat preordained from a narrative perspective).  Yet, there's simply no denying the frequently breathtaking power of ARCTIC as a consummately assembled thriller that hones in on the simple power of filmmaking fundamentals first and foremost.  There would have been a huge temptation by a lesser director to shoot this film on green screen sound stages, which would have completely ruined the effect.  Thankfully, Penna has none of that and uses digital effects to a bare minimum (and if there's a lot used here than they're most invisible), and in turn crafts one of the more harrowing and rugged films of the still quite young year.  

It's also one of the finer examples of less is more cinema that you're likely to find all year too.  We need more like it. 

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