Ever thought you were alone at work? Like, really alone? Arctic would like to challenge you on your definition of ‘alone’. And, as a matter of fact, your definition of ‘work’ as well. Marking his feature length debut Joe Penna, the film is a largely wordless survivalist drama starring Mads Mikkelsen as a man in battling the odds in the titular polar region.
When we first meet Mikkelsen’s character, credited as Overgård in the final credits, he has been trapped days or perhaps weeks in the snowy tundra. His only refuge is the cargo plane he crashed in; his only company is the stones that mark the ground where he buried his co-pilot. Seemingly to stave off insanity and/or depression, Overgård commits himself to a daily routine: wake, fish, tend to the giant SOS he’s dug out in the snow, try to send an emergency signal broadcast, sleep. With the exception of a polar bear stealing his fish and the grim possibility of never being rescued, he seems to have things pretty much in order.
We spend so long with Overgård and his routine that when a helicopter appears over the horizon, presumably to help him, it shocks us as much as it does him. When the worst happens though, Overgård finds himself having to look after a new survivor, played by Maria Smáradóttir. The woman falls in out of consciousness, speaking only the occasional word of Russian. Sensing that she probably hasn’t got long, Overgård decides to sled her deadweight through the snow to an outpost; one that he theorises may be ever so slightly over the horizon. So begins his ice berg-slow journey to redemption.
In a strange fashion, Arctic reminds you of Cargo, the zombie drama that saw a bitten Martin Freeman attempting to save his baby daughter by journeying through the Outback. Like Freeman, Overgård is largely alone with his thoughts as he pulls the Russian woman across the snow, stopping only occasionally to ensure she’s fed and watered. Unfortunately, unlike Freeman, Overgård doesn’t have an indigenous person to show him the way. In fact, he doesn’t really have any one to talk to as Smáradóttir’s part is boiled down to little more than blinking and the occasional hand squeeze. As such, there are long periods of Arctic where not even the scenery can distract you from the feeling that you’re essentially watching a man walk. Walking. For. A. Very. Long. Time.
Arctic’s largest weakness is that knowing nothing about our hero or his cargo means it can be difficult to decide what to think of them. I chose the word ‘redemption’ earlier to describe his quest, but this is just assumption on my part. Overgård could be the most pious man on the planet – we simply have no idea. And we truly know nothing about our Russian friend except for a photo in the third act that reveals a life outside of being unconscious. The film is solely dependent on the performance by Mikkelsen, and he is certainly enough reason to warrant a watch. His constant rumination over what he is doing and what he feels he should do play across his face as a drama unto itself. Give this man all the awards!
Mikkelsen’s performance aside, Artic does boast a third act that piles on the tension sufficiently, almost to the point where the sins of the second act are forgotten. When Overgård ends up having to go toe to toe with a polar bear, it manages to replicate the fear of that similar scene in The Revenant. All of which leads up to a final scene that will, admittedly, defy you to not to have a lump in your throat.
Beautifully shot with an excellent central performance, Arctic is a solid debut that, unfortunately, needs to have more going for it in the script department than variations on ‘Man looks at horizon. He frowns.’
SCREEN REALM SCORE: ★★★☆☆
‘Arctic’ opened in US cinemas on February 1st and arrives in Australia on February 14.