The bleak mid-winter in the frozen wilderness; a man clears the snow and stones away, the camera moves back, slowly revealing a huge SOS sign, dug into the snow. Without using any words and only with the sounds of nature, Joe Penna perfectly depicts the situation of the protagonist, Overgård (Mads Mikkelsen: Hannibal, Doctor Strange), in the first scene of his feature film debut Arctic.
Overgård, whose plane crashed in a cold northern island, is stranded in a place no one would wish for. With the situation being what it is, he has to survive on what the Arctic has to ‘offer’. We do not know how long the man has been stuck on the island; probably months, by the looks of his beard. It is hard not to admire his soldier-like precision when it comes to the daily tasks. In the perpetual cold, without hot food or even fire, his amputated toes prove that Overgård can withstand a great deal. His story is not only about the survival of a human being, but also about the survival of the spirit.
When the last hope of being rescued fails – the helicopter which was supposed to save the man, crashes – the film takes an unexpected direction. Suddenly, it is not Overgård who needs rescuing, but one of the helicopter’s passengers (Maria Thelma Smáradóttir). The protagonist takes care of the wounded woman, but her health begins to deteriorate. To save her, Overgård intends to get them both to a seasonal research base, located a few days away from the crash site – a journey that turns out to be the true test of the man’s character. Overgård relatively quickly gains the viewer’s respect; the physical effort that he has to go through to get even the little things, and to find even a glimpse of joy from each day spent in the wilderness is sufficiently exhausting, and giving up his own safety for someone else’s is admirable. His journey with the surviving passenger puts them at odds not only with freezing temperatures, snow and water and food shortage, but also with a waning will to survive…
Universal minimalism rules the Arctic. The fact that we know very little about Overgård does its job. Dialogues lessened to almost nothing – also having no one to speak to, most of the man’s emotions are communicated by his body language and the mimicry (great camera close-ups) which are delivered extremely well. What the audience gets is the sublime moving image itself, with the music resonating only in the most dramatic scenes – the sound of nature creates the atmosphere in the film.
The script by Joe Penna and Ryan Morrison seems to be thought out to the smallest details. Despite the seemingly trivial, low-speed action, the narrative is engaging with a credible main character. Mads Mikkelsen once again showed his enormous artistic talent and with this demanding role, he proved that nothing – not even freezing temperatures – can stop him from delivering an outstanding performance. Mikkelsen’s partner is Maria Thelma Smáradóttir, who remains unconscious for most of the film; somehow, the whole concept is satisfactorily executed. One of the biggest attributes of the film is the cinematography by Tómas Örn Tómasson; the raw, clean and beautiful shots of Iceland that took on the role of the Arctic give beautiful realism to the whole production.
Joe Penna’s feature debut is a well-crafted and inspirational survival film. However, it is a shame that such a competent film ends with a Hollywood-like ending, instead of leading Arctic to its artistic fulfillment; it ultimately puts the film on a path of theatrical absurdity. Nevertheless, Artic makes for a bald and exhilarating debut feature from the YouTube’s MysteryGuitarMan, Joe Penna.
Written by Maggie Gogler
Edited by Sanja Struna
All photos © Bleecker Street (United States) & XYZ Films (International)
Arctic is available in cinemas and on digital HD 4th January 2019.