It wouldn’t surprise me if you need a moment to catch your breath after watching Arctic. Joe Penna’s beautifully absorbing film is the ultimate journey of survival.
It’s the classic story of man versus the survival of the elements. There must be a plausible reason why we’re always consciously engaged by those stories, whether it’s Tom Hanks in Castaway, James Franco in 127 Hours or Leonardo DiCaprio in The Revenant. Maybe it appeals to our inner sense of wonder of being in a foreign landscape. Maybe we love the idea of conquering life-challenging obstacles. Or maybe it drills into our persistent fears, hoping one day we never find ourselves in a situation where its survival at all costs.
Whatever the admittance, there is no doubt of the attraction and the contrasting duality between the reasons. In Arctic, that question is superbly answered with an outstanding performance by Mads Mikkelsen.
What Arctic beautifully demonstrates is the art of restraint. In an era where films have this burdening compulsion to explain everything (either through exposition or through a series of flashbacks), Arctic practically reveals nothing. Comfortable in its execution, when the film opens, it’s like a crime scene filled with fragmented clues. You don’t know how much time has passed or the contextual nature of the events that have transpired. We’re supplied with one clear information; Overgård (Mads Mikkelsen), our solitary survivor in this unimaginable journey, is trapped, stranded and seeking help. Every process of his survival is based on a precise routine that dedicates time for communicating for help, fishing for food, creating a giant-sized SOS signal and of course, sleeping.
The escalating idea of racing against the clock towards safety in the harshest and treacherous conditions is an essential factor, especially when the chance of rescue concludes with a disaster. Not only does Overgård have to think about himself, but for the life of a young woman (played by Maria Thelma Smáradóttir) whose life is on the brink of death.
For his first feature-length film (besides directing shorts and Avicii’s You Make Me), you can already sense the inspired creativity in Joe Penna’s direction. Filmed in Iceland, there’s an automatic appreciation for the environment, capturing the duality between beauty and danger. It’s the same, comparable wonder that directors Ridley Scott and Alfonso Cuarón was able to enhance and magnify in Alien and Gravity respectively, utilizing the experience as a cinematic character. Arctic’s haunting cinematography sell us the picturesque landscape but equally highlights the complete and despairing isolation, knowing every direction or mountainous climb could be a step closer to death.
Arctic understands how to dramatically put an audience through an experience, effectively and consciously building tension and suspense. It’s not just about the below-freezing temperatures that you have to worry about – Arctic painfully reminds you that you’re not the only thing that lives out there! In its sound design and Joseph Trapanese’s brilliant score, it quickly compliments and envelops you, shattering your nerves in the process with its harrowing twists and turns.
Its ending might have pushed the limit of disbelief, but it never detriments the pure and exhilarating enjoyment. In Mikkelsen’s performance, it’s an exploratory journey inward. His lines are strictly limited, barely saying a word as an effective homage to a silent movie. But his presence encapsulates a wide range of empathetic emotions of fear, paranoia and the desperation of hope. Mikkelsen is no stranger to pushing himself to the limit with his roles in Hannibal and Valhalla Rising for example. Arctic is one of those roles where any upcoming recognition, no matter the extent, will be fully justified.
Cinema was invented for a reason, and Arctic boldly answers that call. It deserves to be seen on the big screen, embracing the magnitude of the extreme circumstances and the sheer marvel of the Icelandic landscape. There is no point in denying its potential success because it is easily the most underrated film of 2018.
ARCTIC screened as part of the BFI’s London Film Festival 2018 and will be released in cinemas and digital HD on 4th January 2019.