Survival stories that emphasize the indomitability of the human spirit can either go a romantic route (for instance, the recent “The Mountain Between Us”) or keep to a sterner path, as, for example, Robert Redford’s “All Is Lost” did. Joe Penna’s “Arctic” chooses the latter option, even if the ending, if taken literally, is more upbeat. (It might, on the other hand, be intended as a hallucination.)
The film begins in medias res, as we find Overgard (Mads Mikkelsen), the sole survivor of a plane crash in the Arctic, struggling to survive alone until rescue arrives. He has set up several lines in holes in the ice, all rigged to sound an alarm when a fish bites, and carefully stores his catch in a locker inside the wrecked aircraft. He also sleeps in the cabin and keeps a record of the days as they pass. During the day he laboriously builds an SOS sign of rocks atop the snow that can be seen from the air, and dusts it off regularly to make sure it remains visible. He also laboriously cranks a signal transmitter in hopes someone will be close enough to hear it.
Finally his efforts pay off: a helicopter shows up. Unfortunately, it’s caught in heavy winds and crashes, too. The pilot is dead, and only the female co-pilot (Maria Thelma Smáradóttir) survives—but barely: she’s seriously injured, with a deep gash in her side, and is only semi-conscious, unable to speak.
Her need for medical treatment prompts Overgard to change his plans. He rigs up a sled for her and whatever supplies he can manage, maps out what he thinks would be the best route through the hills and valleys, and determines to pull her to a research facility. The rest of the film is devoted to the journey, an unbelievably difficult trek marked not only by natural obstacles, but by the appearance of a third character—a ravenous polar bear.
The great strength of “Arctic” lies in its feeling of authenticity. The sense of place—frigid, unforgiving, always dangerous—is palpable (it was shot in Iceland), especially as captured in Tómas Örn Tómasson’s crisp cinematography. Penna and his editor Ryan Morrison (who also co-wrote the minimalist dialogue) moves the film along at a stately—some might say glacial—pace, giving the widescreen images a poetic cast.
No less convincing is Miikkelsen, who genuinely looks as though he’s been stuck in the Arctic wilderness for a couple of months, and who grimly conveys Overgard’s combination of desperation, determination and utter exhaustion. Though Smáradóttir’s is clearly a more passive role, she suffers persuasively. Unfortunately, the bear’s big close-up is marred by some less-than-stellar effects; from a distance, however, the animal is plenty impressive.
As with most tales of one person’s lonely struggle against the elements, the slow, repetitive quality of “Arctic” can test a viewer’s patience, but Mikkelsen’s doggedness and the crystal-clear visuals make for a compelling, if daunting, journey. You might, however, want to take a jacket along to the theatre with you: the mere act of watching Overgard’s struggle might bring on a chill.