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Arctic

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 02/11/19 19:09:12

"Survival is straightforward, but satisfying."
5 stars (Awesome)

There's often not a whole lot to say about this sort of survival adventure, especially if it's pulled off as well as "Arctic" is. You admire the difficult conditions, note how well the star communicates what's going on in his head with looks and body language, maybe try and find some other theme, and eventually decide that to a certain extent, the movie defies analysis because it's about a visceral experience. It can seem either very easy or like an impossible bit of alchemy because it feels like something anyone could do given the right location, and it's hard to pin down what makes a given attempt great.

And, yes, this one was quite clearly shot sompleace awfully cold and isolated, and Mads Mikkelsen is great at showing emotion by how his survivor does things rather than by delivering lines. It's inevitably and unapologetically that movie. It throws a bit of a curve in how it's built by starting out with Mikkelsen's pilot, Overgard, already doing what he can to scratch out survival, avoid the polar bear whose territory he has invaded, and try to attract rescue when the film starts, only for a second crash to set things in motion, which is kind of clever in terms of leading with the methodical grind rather than giving a false impression of what the film will be with spectacle. From there, it goes in a familiar direction - the able-bodied person crossing the ice with an injured companion, bits of how-to, animal attacks and dangerous terrain.

But the details are good. The most important ones, which arguably drive the entire film, are the ones that give a sense of the preciousness of life in all circumstances but especially this one. The first time the audience sees Overgard catch a fish, he holds it for a moment, wordlessly considering that this living thing will have to die to feed him. At the other end of the film, a pale pink bloom peeking out from the blinding white of the snow and ice around it reminds him of the principles he's about to defy. The filmmakers have Overgard demonstrate a great deal of ingenuity but never any sort of foolish pride in doing without.

Most of all, there's the basic connection between two people who share nothing but a dangerous situation. Mikkelsen has by far the more active role - the Thai helicopter pilot played by Maria Thelma Smáradóttir may not share a common language with him even if she weren't too weak to speak - but even then, his performance spends a lot of time between words and actions. He and Smáradóttir cap the film with an impressive display of how hope and relief can blend with utter despair, but arguably one of the most interesting moments Mikkelsen has comes at the beginning, when he's spend some time in an almost robotic sort of survival mindset and it takes his brain a little while to register that he may in some way be responsible for the helicopter crashing - they spotted his flare - and therefore is specifically responsible for any survivors on top of basic humanity. It may be a lot to read into a gaze and a pause, but Mikkelsen and director Joe Penna create the ability to read into his actions with what Overgard does rather than allowing him to remain a blank slate.

Pena, cinematographer Tómas Örn Tómasson, and editor/co-writer Ryan Morrison handle a lot of other things well, starting from how they use scale and stillness to make the audience search for Overgard at the start of a scene or shot, constantly reminding the viewer that even with the two wrecked aircraft, he's still a tiny spec against a large void. They put together scenes that emphasize that whatever Overgard has to do is very difficult - not "seemingly impossible" and not "routine but for the lack of the right tool", but something that poses a challenge. There's no judgment in that, not necessarily any sort of moral quid quo pro in how he responds to it, just a continual underscoring that life is precious in large part because it is fragile.

That sounds facile, maybe obvious enough that you don't have to go out to the tundra and make a movie to communicate it. It's not quite an "it works or it doesn't" sort of film, just one where you can feel kind of foolish trying to deconstruct something so relatively simple, and the question is whether it's done well enough to thrill even the jaded. In this case, it is; "Arctic"'s pieces are assembled carefully, even if the movie itself doesn't look intricate.

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