Mads Mikkelsen’s latest project Arctic is a one-man-against-nature story which is unlikely to set the world on fire. Because it’s set in the Arctic and it’s cold and there’s snow… and ice… and… okay, no more puns. Arctic‘s plot may be a familiar one, but this film is a perfect lesson in how to show, not tell, your audience about what is going on.
Directed by Joe Penna in his very first feature film, this is certainly one hell of a demonstration of what he is capable of, a film that only contains what is necessary, where no time is spent in anything that isn’t critical to the survival of the main characters. No padding, no romantic or comedic subplots, no pointless sidekicks. Just pure, tight, sparse and beautiful filmmaking.
The movie begins and within four minutes the audience knows everything they need to know about the main character, Overgard (Mads Mikkelsen). We know that he is the only survivor of a plane crash, we know why the plane crashed, we know how he spends his days, what he lives on, and a little bit about the nature of his character as he rails against the presence of a single white rock in the otherwise black stones that make up his giant SOS sign that he has meticulously carved into the snow. We also know that the reason he has stayed with the plane is that as far as the eye can see, there is nothing but snow, ice and rock with no indication of the right way to go to try and find help.
One abortive attempt at rescue later, and Overgard finally has some company in the shape of an injured young woman (Maria Thelma Smáradóttir) who has about four words of dialogue and spends the rest of the film slowly dying of septicaemia. All things considered, being asked to spend the entire film wrapped up in warm clothes, and getting dragged everywhere in a sleeping bag probably isn’t the worst way to earn a paycheck.
The entire film, therefore, falls to Mads Mikkelsen to sell and he does an excellent job. He portrays Overgard as a quietly confident character, one who has spent his weeks of isolation keeping to his routine, focused on ensuring his own survival and calling for help. It is only later in the film, broken, exhausted, running on the last dregs of his energy, that this shell cracks and desperation shines through. The movie has perhaps less than twenty minutes of actual spoken dialogue, so everything needs to be communicated through Overgard’s posture, his actions, his expressions, and Mads Mikkelsen is utterly believable as a man facing impossible and seemingly insurmountable odds.
The film this is most immediately reminiscent of is Ridley Scott’s The Martian, time taken to drive home the utter isolation of our characters with long, sweeping shots of bitter white emptiness as far as the eye can see, the camera pulling back to show how the survivors are little more than specks in the wastes of snow, Overgard’s painstakingly carved SOS little more than a tiny scrawl of black in the middle of this impossible emptiness.
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The stark visuals are complemented by an equally sparse soundtrack from composer Joseph Trapanese (Oblivion, Robin Hood, Insurgent). The tracks are short, mostly ambient pieces designed to work with the on screen action, not take away from it. Particular stand out tracks here include ‘Response’ and ‘Recovery’ which are two of the more fast-paced pieces and the somber, wistful violin piece ‘Inevitable’.
From Robinson Crusoe to All Hope is Lost, from Castaway to Adrift, our fascination with this particular genre of movies shows no signs of going away anytime soon and Arctic is a fine example of the genre. Mads Mikkelsen turns in an excellent performance, the story and cinematography are both executed flawlessly and if there was ONE complaint in the entire film, it would be that this film promised “polar bear action” and while there is ONE scene with the bear that is all you get. Oh well. Can’t have everything, I suppose.
Arctic is available on digital, Blu-ray, and DVD from 24th June.