Joe Penna’s directorial debut 'Arctic' tests the ideas of what a film needs to be gripping - it doesn’t always mean action-packed set pieces and heaps of dialogue; sometimes it just takes the simple story of a man and his will to survive.
Mads Mikkelsen plays Overgård, a man lost in the Arctic after a plane crash, waiting for his rescue. We know almost nothing about him - we don’t know his age, where he’s from, exactly how long he’s been stranded, or whether he has any family waiting for his rescue. But it’s impossible not to be completely enthralled as we watch him struggle to survive.
Overgård is a blank slate by design, no amount of backstory is necessary when everything the character does in the film is enough for us to get an idea of who he is (he also displays a surprising amount of altruism given his life or death situation). The audience learns about him in real time, through how he approaches each obstacle as his rescue mission goes from bad to worse to even worse. Eventually, push comes to shove and Overgård must decide whether to stay at his makeshift camp despite dwindling supplies, or risk it all and move on to better his chances of finally making it home.
Where plot and dialogue are sparse, 'Arctic' relies on building atmosphere to create a fully engrossing cinematic experience. Tómas Örn Tómasson’s sweeping cinematography ensures we never lose sight of just how mammoth Overgård’s quest is. From dragging himself and his supplies up hills and across the tundra, a tiny black spot in a blizzard of white, to the upkeep of an SOS sign dug out of snow, there are some genuinely striking images that will stay burned in my memory for quite some time. It’s a feat for a film to make me feel so much from so little elements - think Robert Redford’s ‘All Is Lost’ but swapping oceans for snow. It’s also quite refreshing to watch a film where the main character’s decisions feel considered and make sense. The same cannot often be said of other larger-budget films that rely on character stupidity to create conflict and drive the plot along, but 'Arctic' is no such film. The obstacles that Overgård faces don’t feel unnecessarily dramatised either; the stakes are high enough without throwing over the top challenges or, say, a life-threatening injury at our protagonist.
'Arctic' relies on building atmosphere to create a fully engrossing cinematic experience.
'Arctic' is essentially a one-man show, and without the immense talent of Mads Mikkelsen I’m certain this film wouldn’t work nearly as well. Mikkelsen has always been an impressive actor, from his turn as TV's 'Hannibal' to his award-winning role as a falsely wronged kindergarten teacher in 2012's ‘The Hunt’. Despite this, I’ve never thought of him as an actor who can carry a performance, much less an entire film that features him in every shot, purely on his facial expressions. I am pleased to say that I have now been proven wrong. The last half-hour of his performance is nothing short of heartbreaking. Mikkelsen has described the 19-day shoot as the toughest of his career, and it shows. The line between performance and genuine struggle feels very much blurred at times through 'Arctic', putting you the little bit further on the edge of your seat.
Despite its stunning shot composition and epic scale, 'Arctic' really shines in its smaller moments. Overgård is a man surviving, not living, and his pain and longing for human comforts betrays his need to robotically persevere (two particular moments spring to mind, one of which is definitely played to pull at the heartstrings). It really makes you rethink what a human really needs to survive.
From its simple but heart-wrenching opening scene, 'Arctic' is a beautifully shot and emotionally gripping slow burn that manages to say so much about human survival, despite hardly featuring any spoken words.