Arctic | Joe Penna | February 1, 2019
Man versus nature stories and films are as familiar as they come, but director and co-writer Joe Penna (along with co-writer Ryan Morrison) manages to slightly elevate his feature debut Arctic by trimming the fat and centering the film around Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen.
Running a hair over an hour and a half, Arctic follows H. Overgard (Mikkelsen), stuck in a remote section of the Arctic circle some months after his small cargo plane crashed. His days are routine, run by a wristwatch alarm and focused on an SOS sign, ice fishing, and sending out radio signals. This is disrupted when a rescue helicopter crashes and only one of the two crewmembers is rescued alive – an unnamed woman (Maria Thelma Smáradóttir). With another mouth to feed and dwindling supplies, Overgard makes the decision to pack up and travel to the closest research station for rescue with the ailing woman in tow.
Arctic relies on Mikkelsen, framing him (or an appendage) in nearly every shot. The dialogue-light script works in conjunction with the repetitive routine editing, labored breathing sound work, inhospitable landscape cinematography from Tomas Orn Tomasson, and sparse score from Straight Outta Compton, Greatest Showman, and Robin Hood composer Joseph Trapanese to drive home the cold and isolation. This, along with the wise decision to not include any semblance of a romance subplot (unlike, say, The Mountain Between Us, which intertwines romance with survival), is to the film’s benefit.
However, the familiar tropes of such overarching genre films detract slightly from the overall experience. You’ve got injuries/wounds of varying severity, wild animals, and seemingly indomitable weather/landscapes, among others. Additionally, I would have liked a little more of Overgard’s backstory and how long he was stranded, outside of the scant details alluded to over the course of the film (his buried employee badge, his jacket, etc.). The minimal backstory doesn’t hurt Arctic, but I personally would have preferred if that little bit of fat wasn’t trimmed.
As a directorial and co-writing debut, it’s a good start from Penna, who got his start under the YouTube moniker MysteryGuitarMan. Granted, working quirky upbeat jump-cut music and visuals into a survival film wouldn’t play well, so the writing and directing are more restrained and simplistic, which works in the film’s favor. It helps that Mads Mikkelsen is the lead. He turns in yet another solid performance, which helps to slightly elevate Arctic from a run-of-the-mill survival film to something a little more, as you come to empathize with Overgard, his predicament, and his trials and tribulations. Personally, given what Penna brought to the survival genre (not quite a deconstruction but enough of a stand-out), I’m looking forward to his next project – the sci-fi thriller Stowaway, featuring Anna Kendrick and Toni Collette, set for a 2020 release. In the meantime, I’m always game for more frostbitten Mads Mikkelsen.