The ‘human vs. wilderness’ story is an acting rite of passage akin to making a boxing movie, or playing the snarky best friend in a romcom. Arctic – the feature debut of Brazilian YouTube creator Joe Penna – pits Mads Mikkelsen against the frozen wilderness of the titular landscape, with little chance of rescue.
Penna, who also co-wrote the film’s script, keeps character details to a minimum in establishing Mikkelsen’s predicament. The character’s faded red jacket gives us his name, Overgård, and suggests he’s some sort of cargo pilot. What we do know for sure, however, is that he has been stranded in the Arctic after a plane crash for some time and has established a routine in which he fishes through numerous holes cut in the ice, winds the crank of a distress beacon and improves the enormous ‘SOS’ lettering he has carved into the snow.
Bizarrely, this actually seems to be quite a comfortable life for Overgård, and he seems quite content to simply wait for rescue. When a helicopter does arrive, though, a blizzard brings it down in flames, killing the pilot and seriously injuring his co-pilot (María Thelma). Overgård now finds himself with an agonising decision to make, sending him on a Sisyphean journey to a remote outpost that he has traced out on a map, but may or may not exist.
Arctic, not to be confused with this year’s other chilly-titled Mikkelsen film Polar, is a solid exercise in survival cinema. It borrows heavily from the likes of The Grey and 127 Hours as Mikkelsen gamely battles the forces of nature, from unstable ground beneath his feet to the constant threat of a hungry polar bear that seems almost to pursue the characters on their journey, occasionally breaking the deafening silence with a piercing roar.
Mikkelsen’s performance is a triumph of physicality, portraying a man who carries all of his suffering and hardship in his increasingly snowy beard. His red coat, in a neat touch of design, marks him out as something unwanted and alien in the midst of this vast, unspoiled landscape. He’s a man who knows he shouldn’t be here, but it took the arrival of another person to jolt him into taking affirmative action in the battle to escape.
Unfortunately, Penna’s deliberately sparse storytelling means it’s tough to fully invest in this character’s fight for survival. It’s a film that relies on its breathtaking natural vistas to sell the predicament and a little glimpse of Mikkelsen’s outside world would have done wonders for adding an extra tier of stakes to the third act. This is an accomplished debut, though, which suggests there are big things to come from this newbie director.
Dir: Joe Penna
Scr: Joe Penna, Ryan Morrison
Cast: Mads Mikkelsen, María Thelma
Prd: Noah C. Haeussner, Christopher Lemole, Tim Zajaros
DOP: Tómas Örn Tómasson
Music: Joseph Trapanese
Run time: 98 mins
Arctic is in UK cinemas and on digital download from 10th May.