“Arctic” takes the survival movie genre and strips it down to the bone. There’s not an unnecessary word in the screenplay. The film doesn’t start one second earlier than it needs to, and doesn’t end one second later than it should. Austere and exciting, “Arctic” behaves like its protagonist, who can’t afford to make a mistake or waste time.
The film begins with Overgard (Mads Mikkelsen), digging a trench in the snow in the middle of a frozen tundra. At first, it’s unclear what he’s doing. Is he mining? Digging for water? Building some kind of defensive position?
It’s only after director Joe Penna pulls back for a wide overhead shot that we see the shape of the trench: SOS.
The screenplay by Penna and Ryan Morrison throws us right in the middle of Overgard’s plight, with no backstory or exposition. We don’t know who he is or why his plane crashed. We know that he wasn’t alone in the plane, because every morning he cleans the snow off a little grave marker he’s built. And we know, from the little cross hatches he makes on a map to mark his position, that he’s been stranded there for a while.
It’s fascinating to watch Overgard’s routine, as he catches fish under the ice, digs his trenches, and turns a hand-cranked radio for hours, hoping someone will hear his distress signal. He’s far more capable than the average viewer, and one imagines he could subsist like this for a while.
Then a helicopter that picked up his distress signal crashes in a storm. There’s one survivor, a badly injured woman (Maria Thelma Smaradottir). As Overgard tenderly cares for her, dressing her wounds and spooning soup into her mouth, the equation changes for him. He might be able to survive for a while alone in the middle of a tundra. But she won’t.
The second half of the film follows Overgard’s journey to take the woman to a seasonal station several days away. Like “All is Lost,” “Arctic” is fascinated with the mechanics of survival. How do you stay warm in the middle of a blizzard? How do you get a sledful of supplies up a steep hill? What do you do if a polar bear pokes his head into your cave?
Watching Overgard handle obstacle after obstacle is thrilling. Mikkelsen, a compulsively watchable actor, conveys Overgard’s resourcefulness and determination, but also how the pitiless elements and his own fears wear away at him over time.
We also get glimpses into how lonely he’s become, how the presence of another human being reawakens his need for human contact. There’s a moving moment where he’s maneuvering the unconscious woman into his plane, and just holds her for a second, quietly falling apart.
Releasing “Arctic” in Wisconsin in February is almost cruel, but it adds an undeniable level of realism. Using locations in Iceland that seem far from civilization, the film effectively captures the beauty of this frozen world, and how quickly it can turn dangerous.
Whether it’s that chill, or the simple power of a survival story well told, it’s a film you can feel in your bones.