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Review: Arctic (2019)

Arctic (2019)

Directed by: Joe Penna

Premise: A man (Mads Mikkelsen) stranded in the Arctic treks across the landscape while dragging an injured rescue worker (Maria Thelma Smáradóttir) behind him.

What Works: Arctic is an intimate tale of survival. The story is built on an ironic premise; a man stranded in the Arctic and waiting to be rescued must begin a dangerous trek across the landscape to save his rescuer when her helicopter crashes. This is the story of a man struggling against the elements and the filmmakers convey the physical difficulty of the journey. One of the appeals of survival stories is the way they showcase human ingenuity and Arctic shows how this survivor, played by Mads Mikkelsen, repurposes equipment and the natural environs in order to sustain himself. There are a few interesting survival techniques in Arctic and the filmmakers don’t spell things out for the viewer; there are no artificial scenes of Mikkelsen’s character narrating to himself and explaining what he is doing. The filmmakers just show him doing it and allow us to figure it out. That naturalism is one of Arctic’s strengths. This survivor must travel across uneven terrain in brutal conditions and every scene in the movie captures the danger and the physicality of this man’s experience. Arctic has a vivid sense of place; the landscape is beautiful but sparse and the snow and terrain are the antagonists of the story. Another appeal of survival tales is the way they push the characters to the limits of human endurance and Arctic does this especially well. Mikkelsen’s character goes through hell physically and emotionally; the fact that this injured woman’s survival depends upon him adds a lot to the stakes and the filmmakers take this man to the brink of hopelessness. Mads Mikkelsen deserves a lot of credit for making Arctic as impactful as it is. He’s the only conscious person on screen for much of the movie and Mikkelsen carries this film. He has almost no dialogue and little in the way of human interaction but Mikkelsen is able to make this survivor into an accessible and empathetic character. 

What Doesn’t: Arctic is an A-to-Z survival story with no time for backstory or melodrama. That’s generally to the movie’s credit; one of Arctic’s strengths is its perspicuity. But the film is so pared down that is lacks some of the qualities of mainstream entertainment. The dialogue is minimal and the injured woman spends most of the movie in a sled drifting in and out of consciousness. There are no Hollywood moments of these characters forging a bond or bantering back and forth. The film’s emotional investment is in the survival of these people and that’s enough but Arctic requires some effort on the viewer’s part.

DVD extras: Deleted scenes and a featurette.

Bottom Line: Arctic is a sparse movie but it is also intense and involving while eschewing most of the qualities we usually expect from mainstream entertainment. It’s a well-crafted survival story that makes a visceral impact.

Episode: #766 (September 15, 2019)