To cut down on any potential confusion, Mads Mikkelsen has two 2019 movies with single-word titles related to the cold. The first is the trashy and rather repugnant “Polar” (don’t waste your time). The latest is “Arctic”, a much more tolerable and considerably better movie (most definitely see it).
“Arctic” is an Icelandic survival thriller with a Danish star and a Brazilian director/co-writer. The film marks YouTuber Joe Penna’s feature film directorial debut and let’s just say it’s quite the start. There’s certainly no shortage of man-versus-nature movies and I’ve always been a sucker for a good survival story. While “Arctic” very much fits into that mold, within the first fifteen minutes I could see the film carving out its own path.
The movie leans heavily on its star, Mads Mikkelsen who plays the lone survivor of a small plane crash deep in the Arctic Circle. We know nothing about this man other than he has been stranded for a while. What we do learn comes only from what we can observe. He’s a resourceful man who has turned the plane hull into a cabin of sorts. He has chiseled holes in the thick ice and ran fishing lines for catching trout. And like clockwork he hikes to higher ground where he churns on a hand-cranked device that emits a distress signal.
The movie seems fascinated with the how-to’s of survival and early on a lot of focus is put on his daily routine. But his situation changes dramatically after a helicopter picks up his signal. The chopper tries to land in a windstorm but violently crashes in the process. The pilot is killed but the co-pilot, a young woman played by Maria Thelma Smáradóttir, survives although with serious injuries.
The man gets the unconscious young woman back to his plane and begins treating her wounds. The equation has changed and he knows he can’t keep them both alive. A map in the helicopter wreckage points him to a seasonal shelter which he estimates to be about a two-day journey. The film’s second half sees him heading out across the frozen tundra pulling the young woman on a makeshift sled and with only a few supplies in tow.
“Arctic” is very much about the fight to survive against the most extreme elements and even nature itself. It’s just as much an exploration of the psychological toll. The man’s almost businesslike approach to staying alive changes when the young women arrives. She reinvigorates him and you see a new urgency. Penna shows a subtle hand in how he unearths the new emotions in the man, emotions that surpass simple sympathy.
It’s hard to think of anyone better equipped to lead this movie than Mads Mikkelsen. His tough exterior and rugged disposition is only outdone by his innate ability to speak volumes with so few words. And this is a movie of little dialogue which plays well to that particular strength of his.
“Arctic” was filmed in a remote section of Iceland over a 19 day span. Mikkelsen has called it the toughest shoot of his career, but the cinematic benefits make it worthwhile. The treacherous location makes for an often harrowing and utterly convincing experience. That’s key to what makes “Arctic” such a strong film. It’s a survival movie that does what the best ones do – immerses you in its setting and in the plight of its characters.
VERDICT – 4.5 STARS