Arctic: Sublime Survival Story Pits Mads Mikkelsen Against a Blustery World

By Liam Lacey

Rating: B+

In the film Arctic, which is a sub-zero Robinson Crusoe story, actor Mads Mikkelsen plays a pilot stranded in the far north after his small plane has crashed. For a while, we watch his daily routine, with his digital watch beeping for each beat of his schedule, as he struggles to stay alive and tries to be rescued.

He has made holes in the ice and, using his hair as bait, has a fishing line rigged with pieces of metal that clang whenever a fish bites. He also has a hand-cranked transmitter that he turns every day and a giant SOS sign he has chipped out of the snow to expose the underlying rock.


He has no heat, and his feet are chewed by frostbite, but he is coping. The stay could be indefinite, or brief. He sees a polar bear footprint near the plane and later sees the animal prowling around his fishing line.

The premise of Arctic reminds us of any number survivor stories and films: Tom Hanks in Cast Away, James Franco in 127 Hours, Robert Redford in All is Lost, perhaps even Sandra Bullock in Gravity. Somehow, they all seem complicated and ingratiating compared to the elemental sparseness of Arctic, which offers us no backstory, no flashbacks, minimal dialogue, and no convenient guide posts. We have no idea if the central character here (his jacket patch indicates his name is Overgard) has a family or exactly what kind of work he does. He’s just Mads Mikkelsen in a dirty red coat with a frosted beard and scooped-out cheekbones, amidst the snow and rock of the Icelandic landscape: “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” meets It’s a Mads, Mads, Mads World.

Around 20 minutes into the film, there's a response to his transmitter signal. Soon after, a helicopter approaches, whirls about like a top and then crashes. The pilot is killed. A woman co-pilot (Maria Thelma Smáradóttir) is knocked unconscious and left with a wide gash across her stomach. Overgard patches her up as best as he can with the helicopter first aid kit and then makes a decision: He has to try to get her to medical help. Using a map from the downed helicopter, and improvising a sled from a piece of metal for the woman to lie on, he sets out toward a possible rescue point.

As Overgard struck out hauling the sled, Joseph Trapanese’s rumbling musical score suddenly kicked in and I felt disappointed. Damn, why remind us that this is only a movie? Well, of course it is a movie, and it follows the “Chekov’s gun” principle, that every element of the story must count. Thus, the polar bear from the first act reintroduces itself in a scene that has already been compared favourably to The Revenant. For those of you who need more emotional investment in a movie than a bitter howling wind, a rugged landscape and Mikkelsen grunting and gasping, there’s also photo of the woman’s child and partner, which Overgard finds in the cockpit of the helicopter. On the whole, Arctic focuses on the moment-by-moment struggle and sidesteps obvious opportunities for sensational or feel-good scenes, a strategy that makes its theme of altruism as a motive for survival all the more credible.

Arctic, which had its debut at the Cannes film festival last year, is the first feature from Joe Penna, an L.A.-based hipster Brazilian filmmaker and musician known for his creative and quite busy YouTube videos. There’s little evidence of any of his playful video work in Arctic, though his background reminds us that, as conventional as Arctic may seem, every element onscreen here is a considered creative choice: The deliberate pacing, cinematographer Tómas Örn Tómasson's images reminding of the vulnerable human scale against the landscape and the skeletal narrative, bringing a refreshing purity to a classic predicament.

Arctic. Directed by Joe Penna. Written by Joe Penna and Ryan Morrison. Starring Mads Mikkelsen and Maria Thelma Smáradôttir. Opens February 8 in Toronto, February 15 in Vancouver and Montreal, February 22 in other Canadian Cities, and March 1 in Ottawa.