I always thought I’d be happy to watch Mads Mikkelsen do nothing for 100 minutes – maybe fill out an application, or peel potatoes. Arctic, a film where Mikkelsen does little else than haul his carcass from one nondescript expanse of snow to another, has proven me wrong.
Stranded in the tundra after an unseen accident, the mononymous Overgård (Mikkelsen) is doing okay for himself while waiting to be rescued, spending the time icehole fishing and touching up the big ‘S.O.S.’ sign he’s carved into the snow. The helicopter that finds him crashes, however, killing the pilot and leaving Mikkelsen to nurse the other ailing passenger back to health. This unnamed woman (María Thelma Smáradóttir) spends the vast majority of the film unconscious, sometimes getting our hopes up by sniffling or grunting a bit in her sleep.
With another person’s life now in his frostbitten hands, our hero is forced out of his makeshift shelter and into the nothingness of the Arctic, dragging his comatose charge behind him on a sled. Having no clear objective other than ‘don’t die’, Mikkelsen’s journey is straightforward, apart from one anticlimactic encounter with a polar bear that seems to have wandered over from the set of some more shamelessly entertaining blockbuster.
Minimalism has its place, but Arctic’s Icelandic vistas and sobering lack of information end up feeling bleak in an unsatisfying way. The film is almost wordless by design, but it’s also relatively featureless, pulseless.
Not to suggest that Mikkelsen isn’t compelling as beleaguered survivor Overgård – his fascinating, flinty mug acts as a perfect canvas upon which his audience can project their concern. His performance is entirely reacting rather than acting – eyes scanning the lunar horizon, wheels turning in his mind. But first-time feature director Joe Penna keeps the Dane at a frosty distance from the viewer, never allowing us to get inside that beautiful head.
Perhaps empathy for the tortured main character is the key to survival films. During Arctic I was continually reminded of Danny Boyle’s superior 127 Hours (2010), which comparatively takes a maximalist approach to its simple man-vs-nature narrative. Where Penna strips us of all illuminating context and his character’s perspective, Boyle maybe gave us too much; monologues, hyperkinetic coked-up visuals, and jittery camerawork – all of which works to posit us inside his protagonist’s experience.
Arctic shows admirable restraint by comparison, but it gives us no first-hand insight into just how poor Overgård must’ve felt about plummeting down an icy ravine, or watching his toes turn black and loosen from his foot. Hell, the production itself was an interesting ordeal—Mikkelsen said himself that the film’s gruelling 19-day shoot was the ‘most difficult of his career’. Why wasn’t more of that torment channelled into the diegetic world of the film?
Penna’s background is in short film and award-winning YouTube projects – so he clearly has some level of mastery over short attention spans. Arctic’s plot shouldn’t feel so emphatically slow, even though it barely ticks over 90 minutes. More forgiving viewers might say that this is the point – that survival is boring, that there can be no tension without a realistic amount of waiting around and fiddling with zippers and carabiners. I, for one, can’t believe the film’s sluggishness is intentional, when the easy inspirational arc of its narrative suggests that it does in fact intend to entertain its audience.
When James Franco’s character in 127 Hours is forced to sever his ulnar nerve to free himself, we wince, too – because of the sound-editing scare chord Boyle plays at the moment of amputation, but also because, to put it simply, humans are empathetic creatures. We can’t help but care about a good man stuck in a life-or-death situation. Arctic could have played with this innate desire, making us question the hero’s choices and identity rather than passively noting that he’s in danger.
Instead, we’re left out in the cold watching Mikkelsen struggle – the distance between us vast and glacial.
Arctic is in Australian cinemas from 14 February.
Eliza Janssen is a Melbourne writer of criticism and screenplays who wants you to know that there are pterodactyls in the background of the breakfast table montage in Citizen Kane. For more information visit elizajanssen.com / @eliza_janssen