There’s only so much you can do about a survival story in the snow. How many times can bad things happen and still be interesting and believable? What sets ‘Arctic’ apart is its good use of physical space, some assured direction, and a performance from one of the greatest artists working today.
A pilot (Mads Mikkelsen) has crash-landed in a desolate landscape of ice and snow. He sets up a makeshift camp and tries to plan rescue, using his intelligence and improvised equipment to make a life for himself and stave off despair. A bit like ‘The Martian’ (with a lot less sardonic narration of his every move), these sequences depend entirely on empathizing with this character’s struggles and yearning along with him for success.
Luckily, Mikkelsen has the gift of drawing us in with the tiniest inflection, and his physical presence and emotional intelligence are the film’s greatest gift. When the story enters its second phase and sacrifices must be made, we’re drawn even further into his world, captivated by what he’s able to overcome, but equally daunted by what must be tackled in order to succeed.
I’m a sucker for watching people know what the hell they’re doing and still failing (see ‘127 Hours’ for a stupendous representation of that), so the anxiety-inducing challenges will thrill on a visceral level. Director Joe Penna got most of his credit from a series of YouTube guitar videos, but while he lacks some of the sophistication that Boyle brought to his movie, this is still an assured work that maintains tension without overplaying its hand.
Unfortunately, the film has a lot of repetition, and some of the sections are cut more seamlessly than others. Still, at other times there’s real elegance at play, and Penna has the ability to surprise without telegraphing too badly what’s to come.
At its heart, this is a showcase for Mikkelsen, and fans will thoroughly appreciate the journey of hardship and tenacity that he takes us on. The warm heart at the core of ‘Arctic’ is Mikkelsen’s, and it’s with his tremendous gifts that the film is elevated from a simple tale of survival into something far grander and more epic.