FILM REVIEW: 'Arctic'
Mads Mikkelsen utters approximately twenty-one lines of dialogue in Arctic, a film checking in at just over an hour and a half, a totality of speaking volume which is both fitting and sufficiently compelling in giving audiences the best survival movie of the last decade. Playing a marooned survivor of an arctic plane crash, Mikkelsen's face and body movements make up the bulk of his performance, allowing for the audience to feel rather than simply see his plight, resulting in an understated, quietly powerful performance which draws viewers in within the first few moments of the film.
We feel the quiet frustration of his mundane, daily tasks which bring him no closer to rescue despite his workmanlike dedication. He eats the fish he catches raw. He chips away at the ice to reveal bare, frozen ground, enough to form the letters "SOS" near his crash-turned-camp site. His watch dutifully beeps at various intervals, giving his daily life some semblance of rhythm within its pragmatic purpose, pushing him to his next task before finally leaving him alone to face another long, cold night wrapped in a sleeping bag in the metal shell of his crippled airplane. Along with the gorgeous wide shots of the cold and punishing landscape, Mikkelsen's weathered face and solemn devotion to survival form the backbone of Arctic.
Like most survival films, Arctic centers on its main character wrestling with the decision to brave the environment to trek miles away to a rescue point or simply endure, waiting patiently for a rescue mission which may never come. Arctic succeeds in conveying quiet terror in an often beautiful and breathtaking cinematic landscape, letting Mikkelsen's solemn face and silent discoveries provide the reality check to any delusions of spacious grandeur on the part of the audience. For Mikkelsen's survivor, life is cold, hard and on borrowed time. Days are counted by sunrises and sunsets, time marked by opportunities for survival, each day passing reminding all of us our protagonist is closer to death.
There is no grand explanation of how Mikkelsen's character got there or even his name. It really doesn't matter. As the boredom of staying alive gives way to tension caused by unforeseen interruptions to Mikkelsen's daily routine, stakes rise to a level where one wonders how anyone will get out of this film alive. And in the end, we aren't really sure anyway.
The beauty of Arctic is what isn't said, a trick director Joe Penna uses with stunning success throughout the film, letting audiences draw their own conclusions, wisely sidestepping the trap of letting the film get bogged down in exposition or heavily constructed scenes to generate tension beyond what already exists. Penna uses the film's main situation and protagonist as his main tool in telling the story with minimal intrusion or supposition by anyone or anything else. A polar bear in the distant horizon bookmarks a potential threat somewhere down the line but nothing more. Words and names are shown briefly to indicate the main character's work company and possible reasons for ending up in this mess. A previous survivor from another crash, long dead and discovered later by Mikkelsen, haunts the screen and story's future simply by being in view. Mikkelsen chews his raw fish while staring ahead and pausing occasionally to look out the wrecked plane's small window to the vast, seemingly endless sea of frozen tundra before him. Nothing needs to be said or done.
Penna offers us gorgeous vistas of this untamed land but consistently reminds us to remain unseduced by this beauty through vignettes and harsh scenes of struggle and constant challenge. Eventually, like any great survival film, Arctic makes us feel just as isolated and increasingly hopeless as Mikkelsen's character, hoping with each scene for answers, explanations, or a rescue (isn't someone missing this guy?) but much like Mikkelsen, we lose sight of this optimism until what we see is simply reality, nothing more, nothing less.
Two decades ago, Tom Hanks offered a warm weather version of this story in Castaway, a film which gave viewers greater detail about Hanks' Chuck Noland before his crash and after his eventual rescue. The in between portion of the film is equally gripping and affecting but clearly gains more emotional heft because we know who this man is and what he's lost. We get no such details with Mikkelsen's character. We don't get many words or even a name. But we clearly get the isolation Mikkelsen's character feels and lives each day, punctuated by occasional moments of terror and persistent loneliness. Noland's return to the real world in Castaway serves to add meaning to the survival we witness in the film's middle act and offer some closure to who Noland was before the crash, all events the audience witnesses. Penna offers audiences nothing of the sort, asking viewers to go along for a desolate, largely unexplained ride into a harsh and unforgiving world, one which gives no real hope for a happy ending nor the inclination to even ask for one. Arctic stands as the best, most emotionally affecting survival film since Castaway, one which comes off more as a tone poem about endurance of the human spirit but also one of acceptance of one's fate.