Movie Review: Arctic

Given a choice, would you rather be stranded in a desert or in an icy tundra? I would think that the tundra might the better option because at least the snow there could provide you with drinking water. Either way, I wouldn’t want to test the hypothesis anytime soon. But for one man, he has no choice after his twin engine plane crash lands in the middle of nowhere in Iceland’s barren Arctic.

When we first see Overgård (Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen, AT ETERNITY’S GATE; THE HUNT; CHARLIE COUNTRYMAN; TV’s HANNIBAL), whose name we only know from his parka, it’s probably at least a month since the crash judging by the length of his beard and by how easily he goes about his daily routine to survive. That routine, which is guided by his watch that beeps throughout the day to let him know that it’s time for his next task, involves cleaning up the snow that may have fallen the night before on his giant SOS sign, checking his ice fishing lines for any new catches, and climbing to a nearby rise to hand crank his plane’s distress beacon in the slim chance that someone who thinks he’s still alive will hear it and come rescue him. His dire situation soon becomes much more complicated when he finds a young woman (played by Icelandic actress Maria Thelma Smáradóttir) who is the sole survivor of a helicopter crash. Though she is badly injured, Overgård makes the decision to take her back to his wreck and try to nurse her back to health. Stripping the helicopter of anything that could help them survive longer, he finds a contour map of the area. Working out a route to the nearest population centre, he packs the woman onto a sled along with anything else they will need for the arduous, days long trek… hoping they will survive the elements, unforgiving terrain and hungry polar bears along the way.

We’ve seen similar films like this before, from the 1993 film, ALIVE, about the Uruguayan rugby team, to THE REVENANT in 2015, so ARCTIC doesn’t break any new ground for this genre. But it is compelling viewing thanks to Mikkelsen’s totally committed performance and the near dialogue-free screenplay by first-time director and YouTube star Joe Penna and his co-writer Ryan Morrison. It’s similar in tone to the excellent 2013 film, ALL IS LOST, starring Robert Redford, in that both films have intelligent characters who rely on their ingenuity to try to survive their near-hopeless situation. And, like ALL IS LOST, there are no volleyballs or other inanimate objects to provide companionship or a sounding board for our protagonist. Until he finds the woman, Overgård is literally out there on his own and he knows it. He doesn’t even talk out loud to himself. Wisely, Penna often points the camera square on Mikkelsen’s face so the audience can get a glimpse of what’s going on in Overgård’s mind. My only beef with ARCTIC involves the soundscape. In other Arctic movies I’ve seen, it’s incredibly quiet, with the only sounds coming from the wind howling across the plain and the cracking of ice. In this film, for some reason, there’s a lot of background noise. Perhaps Penna was nervous about the film’s marketability given its lack of sound. (Hey, Joe! We sat through A QUIET PLACE, didn’t we?) Whatever the reason for its inclusion, it was a mistake.

That aside, ARCTIC is still well worth seeing. The film premiered at last year’s Cannes Film Festival and was released commercially in the US last February. It’s opening here this week opposite the new JOHN WICK movie so don’t expect it to stay in the cinemas for very long.

Watch the review recorded on Facebook Live on Friday, May 17th at 8:30 am HK time!

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