Arctic: vicious, chilly endurance test

Arctic pits Mads Mikkelsen against the elements in a vicious, chilly endurance test for its star and his audience. There are no gimmicks – no arm-chopping, or sea creatures, or dazzling camerawork – just one man (and an unconscious woman) trying to survive in the most testing of situations. It’s an impressive, stripped back debut for Joe Penna, but one that more critical viewers might find a little lacklustre, and casual viewers might find a little dull.

Mikkelsen stars as Overgård, a plane crash victim who’s been stranded for an unknown period of time in, presumably, the Arctic. His attempts to attract attention – manning a wind-up distress beacon and digging a giant “SOS” in the snow – have so far been futile, and one gets the sense that it’s only a matter of time before his will breaks and the end draws near. However, during a violent snow storm, a helicopter crash brings him in contact with an unconscious, living person who’s in need of urgent medical attention. So begins an epic journey from the crash site to the location of a permanent base many miles away.

Overgård walks the entire distance, dragging his precious cargo (and all the equipment they need to survive) behind him on a sled. Sometimes, the terrain is smooth and the sky clear; but, more often, steep cliffs, snow storms, and rocky outcrops threaten to end the expedition. The primal essence of survival is distilled by Penna into a muscular, thrilling journey through an alien landscape – the camera frequently darting out to reveal the miniscule, inconsequential impact and importance of humanity in the wilderness. There’s something viscerally enjoyable, perhaps embedded in our primal psyche, about watching people fight with everything for their very existence. In that respect, the film is a fantastic piece of work.

Mikkelsen is, predictably, excellent as a man pushed to the edge of humanity – but certainly not past it; and the elemental plot gives plenty of opportunity for emotional moments – especially as the film draws to a close and we begin to wonder what fate our protagonists will suffer. In fact, there’s not much to say that’s particularly negative about this film – there’s not really even a script to criticise.

My main problem with Arctic, though, is that I’ve seen Essential Killing – which is pretty much the same film. Replace ‘plane crash victim’ with ‘terrorist on the run’, and the dialogue-less, sparsely shot stories of survival in barren landscapes look eerily similar. In fact, both these films share the same problem: after 40 minutes, or so, they run out of things to do/say and so instead settle into a repetitive lull where it feels like we’re watching the same thing over, and over, and over again. When Mikkelsen periodically looks at his map and has only progressed a tiny percentage of his route, the audience gasp – not in sadness for Mikkelsen – but in sadness for themselves: “how long is this going to go on for?”.

Even if you disagree with me, if you’ve seen The Revenant, or The Grey, or presumably any number of less modern snow-bound survival thrillers, you’re not going to be excited or impressed with Arctic. The stripped-down approach on show here is good, I get it, but the stylistic touches of Chivo’s lensing, or the more dangerous atmosphere of Neeson’s man-on-wolf drama add to these films in a way that Penna is unable to compensate for. There’s nothing in Arctic that you haven’t seen already – and it doesn’t do the things it does better than those who have already done them.

For a debut feature, then, Penna has proven his worth with Arctic: a thrilling, emotional snowbound adventure. Although it begins to drag in an overlong second act, and it bears striking resemblance to other, better films, fans of Mads Mikkelsen and the survival sub-genre will find much to love here; others will probably be rather underwhelmed.


James is an undergraduate law student at UCL, and London Student's Chief Arts Editor/Film Editor. He wants you to know that Christopher Nolan is overrated.

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