Film Review: Arctic

Snow Blind Faith

Life is chaos, chaos is life, but mankind has spent centuries thinking up of all these wonderful distractions to calm us, lulling us into a false sense of security, raising and securing those thoughts of improbability, it will only happen to someone else.

But what if that someone else crashes into and becomes you, all that comfort and subconscious security is ripped away before your very eyes, scorching white cold, with imminent death potentially in every single footstep you take. Hopefully, the first thing to be buried is your complacency, and then you start remembering all those Ray Mears survival programmes you watched. It now becomes much more than fight or flight, it becomes faith.

Mads Mikkelsen stars as Overgård in ARCTIC, a Bleecker Street release. Credit: Helen Sloan SMPSP / Bleecker Street

Overgård (Mads Mikkelsen) has somehow crashed his plane on an Arctic tundra. We are never told why it doesn’t matter, the ONLY thing that matters is survival. Miles away from anything, alone, isolated we are 100% up frozen shit creek, were the natural outcome of anything trying to live there is icy death.

The title ‘Arctic’ (2018) is as sparse as the environment, as barren as the dialogue or explanation of the events that have resulted in this incessant, relentless battle with mortality and nature. It’s well and good knowing when to pick your battles to win the war, but what if every battle is the war, any loss is immediate and fatal. A first time feature by director Joe Penna (who also wrote it along with Ryan Morrison) this is a stunningly confident first step into an unforgivable territory, both thematically and potentially commercially if it doesn’t work. This really is the right stuff.
Overgård has clearly been stranded for some time. He has a daily routine, rigidly set out of pure necessity, structure and survival. This system is in stark contrast to the vicious numbing chaos that swells around him, where even just breathing can be a battle.

In Greek mythology, Prometheus was tied to a rock, with his liver ripped out every day by a giant eagle, only for it to heal every night, and repeated the next day. Overgård has carved a giant SOS into the snowscape by the crash site, yet every morning he has to dig it out again from the storms that appear without warning. Such relentless graft is strenuous in any environment, in this world, it could kill. Too much time at any one thing lessons the chances of survival, there’s still food (fish) to be found and hours using the emergency signal that has to be exhaustively hand powered. Everything, every day and every moment is an endurance test, where the only reward is that you get to continue the torment.

But he is surviving, as long as he sticks to his methodically thought out survival plan.

But chaos rules supreme, and a brief swirl of salvation turns into carnage, and his routine that has proven itself for some time dies with the pilot of a search helicopter. Another pilot survives, but has been seriously injured, needing constant care, or she will die. But they both will if the system is ignored.

The situation only escalates and plummets from there.
As mentioned earlier, this is a stunningly and appropriately beautifully bare in exposition, but so rich in performance. Any time I see the name Mads Mikkelsen I will immediately tune in, he has done and continues to do fantastic work all round, but ‘Arctic’ is a new high. Incredibly nuanced, haggered, weather destroyed, with a genuine toil etched into every single frame.  It comes as no surprise at all that he performed even the most isolated of scenes trekking miles into nothingness, every single snow weighted step adds depth to his pure humanity, an oasis surrounded by gleaming death.

It’s that humanity that is at stake too, on his own, it was his knowledge, science and training that kept him alive. But his training isn’t enough to keep the pilot alive, and to try to increase her changes, he must give up everything, for someone he doesn’t know. The moment to moment trials against nature now become the timeless trial of what it means to be human, and what we have to do to maintain that humanity.

Mads’ performance is fantastic, like his line caught fish, we are slowly hooked and reeled in, such to the extent that every decision and action that Overgård takes now becomes, what would we do? We are now on trial to prove our own humanity, empathy, hopes, beliefs and faith. Who amongst us in the cinema would try to save the stranger, and who wouldn’t.

Again, despite the vast emptiness, this is bursting with tension and massive themes, shrewdly and confidently crafted and beautifully presented by cinematographer Tómas Örn Tómasson. The Icelandic scapes used in the film make imminent death look mesmerisingly gorgeous, like glacial sirens teasing you to your own demise with a wonderful score by Joseph Trapanese.

Ultimately it feels like a deeply intimate one-man play, on the biggest stage ever, which is an extraordinary achievement to pull off by anyone, and a true indicator of human potential.

‘Arctic’ is in cinemas and on digital HD from 10 May.

Steve Clarke

Born in Celtic lands, nurtured in art college, trained by the BBC, inspired by Hunter S. Thompson and released onto the battlefront of all things interesting/inspiring/good vibes... people, movies, music, clubbing, revolution, gigs, festivals, books, art, theatre, painting and trying to find letters on keyboards in the name of flushthefashion. Making sure it's not quite on the western front... and beyond.