There’s nothing particularly new in Joe Penna’s survival drama Arctic. But the director’s gritty, hard-edged vision of human resilience strikes a primal chord that other similarly themed films do not. For a movie that’s essentially Cast Away by way of The Revenant, Arctic eschews the usual trappings of its subgenre, dispensing with the laborious character development and getting right down to the brass tacks of survival. Although our hero is listed as Overgård in the credits, he is never mentioned by name, and, as played by lead actor Mads Mikkelsen, barely says a word over the course of the film’s 98 minutes. We know little about him, other than that he’s a researcher or scientist of some kind who became trapped somewhere in the Arctic Circle. We don’t even know if he has a family, so don’t expect any flashbacks to an idyllic home life. This film is about survival for survival’s sake, in which the very act of living and the desire to keep breathing at all costs becomes the only focus.
This is survivalism stripped down to its bare essence, free of sentimentality, thematic pretensions, and unnecessary narrative devices. Arctic delivers man-versus-nature conflict at its most elemental.
After a failed rescue attempt leaves Overgård with an injured, unresponsive woman, his plight becomes more urgent. But Penna takes his time building tension, letting the landscape’s overwhelming bleakness and Mikkelsen’s hard-bitten performance do most of the heavy lifting. Mikkelsen’s face is as worn and rough-hewn as the harsh, snow-swept Arctic wilderness, and he manages to do more with his steely silence than Leonardo DiCaprio did in his far showier work in The Revenant. There’s nothing particularly new here — viewers may find themselves reminded of films like The Grey, All is Lost (Mikkelsen’s work is comparable to Robert Redford’s deeply internalized performance in J.C. Chandor’s film), and even the more melodramatic The Mountain Between Us. Yet there’s something uniquely compelling about the simple, unfussy way Penna tells his story. This is survivalism stripped down to its bare essence, free of sentimentality, thematic pretensions, and unnecessary narrative devices. Arctic delivers man-versus-nature conflict at its most elemental — set against the quickly melting backdrop of one of earth’s last frontiers and played out across the face of an actor working at the peak of his powers. It takes a familiar tale and makes it feel, if not exactly fresh, at least raw and ragged enough to resonate somewhere deep in the most primitive, instinctual reaches of the human psyche.
You can currently stream Joe Penna’s Arctic on Amazon.