Survival movies are inherently formulaic. The protagonists are in a dangerous location. They must decide how to get food and water. They battle the odd attacker; sometimes man, sometimes beast. Then they find their way back home, get rescued, or – very occasionally – die.
Arctic doesn’t break any new ground here. It follows the formula to a tee.
Overgaard (Mads Mikkelsen) is stranded in the Arctic after his plane crashed some time ago. When he sees a helicopter circling above, he frantically tries to alert it to his presence. But the weather has taken a turn for the worse, and the helicopter is bought down by a blizzard. Discovering that the young female pilot (Maria Thelma Smáradóttir) inside is still breathing, Overgaard does his best to keep her alive, and get them both to safety.
What makes the film so interesting is its leanness; this is a survival movie with no meat on the bones. When we first meet Overgaard, he’s already been stranded for quite some time. We never learn what happened to the plane, where he was going, or how long he’s been stuck. There are a few visual clues of course – the length of his beard, the logo on the plane – but nothing definitive. Writer-director Joe Penna chooses, rightfully, not to add in any flashbacks or tragic backstories. There’s almost no dialogue. Arctic is as spare and uncluttered as its chilly landscapes.And what landscapes! Penna and cinematographer Tómas Örn Tómasson take every opportunity to illustrate just how much Overgaard is dwarfed by his surroundings. He’s little more than a speck on a white piece of paper. The grand sweep of the icy peaks and valleys is huge and beautiful and terrifying. Words aren’t necessary when one glance at the screen tells you how perilous a position our heroes are in.
More than anything though, the reason to see Arctic is Mads Mikkelsen. There hasn’t been such a worthy cinematic showcase of his talents since 2012’s The Hunt. As we are given no information about Overgaard, and there is negligible dialogue, the only tools Mikkelsen has to create his character are expression and gesture.
It’s a punishingly physical performance. So many scenes involve him dragging the pilot (she is never given a name) up and down huge mounds of snow in the biting cold. Most affecting, however, are the smaller moments. The delicate way he adjusts the pilot’s photo of her family, so she can see it from her prone position. The tiny smile he gives when she squeezes his hand for the first time, to let him know she’s still living. The gradual erosion of his calm demeanour, worsened by every new setback. Despite the life or death dangers at hand, Mikkelsen underplays at every opportunity. Arctic is all the better for it.
Whilst there isn’t anything to differentiate Arctic from all the survival movies that have come before, it’s still an absorbing, technically impressive piece of work. And a reminder – as if we needed it – that Mads Mikkelsen needs more leading roles.