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Arctic is a brutally palpable thriller

Arctic is a brutally palpable thriller

Arctic is a harsh, cold-weather survival tale in the same vein as the recent man-against-nature films like All Is Lost or 127 Hours. 

Here, Overgård (Mads Mikkelsen) is first seen bundled up and digging in a wintry snow-covered landscape. It’s unclear how long he has been stranded in the arctic, but he cozies himself up in his downed airplane for sleep and shelter and he has figured out how to catch fish to eat. He also periodically tries to get a signal out to be rescued. His life has become routine. It takes about ten minutes before he even speaks. 

These scenes of Overgård alone serve as a prologue to the action, which begins in earnest when a helicopter that may be coming to rescue him crashes. Now Overgård has to rescue the survivor, a woman (Maria Thelma), who is wounded—the pilot died—and this only adds to his predicament. Once he decides to head north, in the hope of being saved, the real adventure begins.

Arctic does not include much in the way of narrative surprises, but it does generate some dramatic suspense. Overgård’s arduous trek has him pulling the injured woman along in a makeshift stretcher through a rugged landscape. He encounters a treacherous mountain he didn’t expect from the map he’s using. The pair are threatened by a polar bear when they seek shelter from the cold one evening. Overgård also experiences a punishing setback. 

It is easy to feel sympathy for the characters who hope to be rescued, but Arctic largely prompts audiences to want relief from the relentless cold and bleakness. The wind chill is palpable. Sure, director Joe Penna laces his film with beautiful shots of snow-covered mountains, but this is not a story about appreciating the wonders of nature; it is a brutal tale about the tenacity of the human spirit. Or maybe it’s just a cautionary tale against getting trapped in vast, frozen wastelands. 

Arctic is competently made and mostly compelling, but it is never transcendent. It is watchable because of Mikkelsen’s committed performance. He suffers both physically and emotionally. It is tricky to parse who has it worse—the actor or the character? But at least that gives viewers something to think about—other than if or how they would survive under similar conditions—as the story unfolds. There is really not much else to ponder during Arctic. 

Arctic opens today in Philly theaters,

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