2019, PG-13, 98 min. Directed by Joe Penna. Starring Mads Mikkelsen, Maria Thelma Smáradóttir.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., Feb. 15, 2019
It is rare that a whole genre can be defined and surmounted by one artist, but when it comes to wilderness survival, in the century since his death, no one has ever reached beyond the shadow of Jack London. While other authors of the age of empire and expansionism have faded, works like The Call of the Wild and White Fang have an extraordinary, simple power. His view of nature was, atypically of his time, not just resources to be conquered, exploited, and mastered, but implacable and wonderful.
It seems like every story of man in nature – most especially against a setting of snow and ice – has been informed by London's work. So it is with Arctic, a chilly and straightforward story of survival.
The clarity and succinctness of the story is apparent from the first moment. Overgård (Mikkelsen) is the sole survivor of an airplane crash, somewhere north of the Arctic Circle. It happened an unknown time ago, but long enough for him to have buried the dead and fall into a daily routine of trudging a huge SOS in the snow, and trying to raise rescuers on the radio. He's done the right thing by staying with the plane, but now it's clear that his salvation will only lie in trudging through the bitter drifts and up peaks to find some sign of civilization.
Arctic is (pardon the pun) the polar opposite of writer/director Penna's 2015 short "Beyond": There, his protagonist was immortal, truly apart from time, while Overgård is constantly, painfully aware that his life is governed by an ever-ticking clock. It would not take a fall or a bear or some cruel act of nature to kill him or his ward. Instead, death is just a natural process, one that can come from just leaving your jacket open for too long. By not showing the crash, Penna resets our expectations (after all, if Overgård can survive that, what's a little frostbite?) and lets the dread build organically. There's an additional wrinkle when a survivor of another incident (Smáradóttir) enters the snowscape, and suddenly his decisions about survival, and what it means for two as opposed to one, take on a new tone.
It's choices like that, quiet twists that reject overblown drama in favor of introspection and insight, that make the uncomplicated narrative as humbling as the landscapes captured by cinematographer Tómas Örn Tómasson. Mikkelsen never overplays the fact that Overgård is just surviving minute to minute, and that he knows that fury and frustration will kill him quicker than a bear (yes, there is the inevitable ursine run-in, but even that feels grounded and personal).
It's hard to imagine that London would not approve of Arctic, because it taps into those same themes that so dominated his work – that the wilds don't really care whether you live or not, but that does not stop you appreciating their unrelenting grandeur. It does not reinvent the wheel (or, more aptly, sled runner) but it's a tale that survives the retelling.