Review by Jacquelin Hipes
Survival is a nasty business, as Overgård (Mads Mikkelsen) learns after the plane he was piloting crashes in the Arctic. Unforgiving as the Sahara, his new surroundings offer little in the way of supplies or opportunities for rescue. Overgård makes due as best he can, transforming the battered fuselage into a shelter while diligently checking the lines in his ice fishing holes, maintaining a massive “SOS” carved into the unrelenting white landscape, and making a daily trek to high ground in an attempt to make radio contact with anyone passing overhead.
Hope flares early on with the appearance of a helicopter affiliated with an international research station located further north. Because this is a feature length survival film, though, we all know that a happy ending can’t come quite so soon. High winds sabotage the pilot’s efforts to reach Overgård and the helicopter crashes, leaving a nameless young woman (Maria Thelma Smáradóttir) alive but unconscious in the wreckage. Overgård cares for her as best he can, lugging the woman and extra supplies back to his makeshift camp, but her deteriorating health and the passage of days with no sign of a search team increase the risk of staying where they are. Bolstered by the navigational charts and tools he scavenged from the second wreck, Overgård finally elects to brave the elements in search of help.
Mikkelsen excels in a film with little dialogue and virtually no substantive human interaction. In his hands, Overgård becomes a man capable of meticulous discipline and resolve, who is nonetheless mentally overwhelmed by the scale of what he attempts to do. His performance nearly salvages a script that deals in conveniences and contrivances, forcing genius and staggering stupidity on its lead with a ham-fisted approach to drama. After carefully rationing his supplies, Overgård wastes a valuable flare to scare away a threat when a perfectly suitable pickax was at hand. Early on we’re shown the ravages of frostbite on his feet because Overgård takes off his moisture-wicking, insulated wool socks to sleep.
Arctic utilizes a strange mixture of the gritty and the sanitized when delving into the sacrifices and horrors of living, unprepared, in a frozen wasteland. Director Joe Penna (who co-wrote the script with Ryan Morrison) beautifully captures the stark emptiness of the Arctic, the scale of which humbles and terrifies. This reverence never quite translates to the story unfurling on the ice, though. Admittedly, the lack of frostbite on Overgård’s face or the seemingly infinite capacity of a small propane tank might not detract from the nuanced character work on display by Mikkelsen. They do, however, serve as small, pointed reminders that this suffering is an illusion easily remedied by a cup of hot cocoa at the end of a take. And that’s a shame.