Survival films can go either way: they can be engaging viewing experiences that expand their scope beyond their basic premise or can be slogs that never rise above the level of average survival stories.
ARCTIC falls somewhere in between: it doesn’t fully engage compared to better survival films but doesn’t fall completely flat either. But watching the film, we couldn’t help but feel there was a much better film somewhere that was waiting to be made. The film’s emptier-than-expected approach and total lack of interesting enough stakes and incidents, beyond what we already see at the start of the film, creates a dilemma for the viewer: while we follow Mads Mikkelsen’s un-named character trying to survive and escape the Arctic with no backstory, we expect to see engaging-enough challenges that make his journey more intriguing than the average popcorn film of that sort.
Director Joe Penna clearly isn’t interested in creating an extra dimension for his protagonist, nor offering a backstory that can contextualize him more than a mere survivor, which is fine if the film offers opportunities for character development even if the one-dimensional survival context. Penna attempts at showing the character’s compassionate side, when a helicopter crashes nearby and he tries to save a woman and drags her body for most of the film, but with no dialogue and low stakes throughout, the absence of character development combined with nothing much happening throughout the film may leave viewers cold (no pun intended).
The redeeming quality of the film is certainly Mads Mikkelsen’s moving performance filled with h, art, agony and humanity in a role that’s as physically demanding as it is emotionally. The script, however, does not provide him with more opportunities to shine and go beyond survival mode. We know nothing of who he is or why he landed in the Arctic, and by the end of the journey are left somewhat unsatisfied.
The film boasts excellent cinematography that provides a perfect showcase for the Arctic as a heartless region in which danger is hiding in every corner. The landscapes and caves are captured with excellent camera work, while the sound design is also notable. Such elements create a tense atmosphere that makes the film watchable and, at times, enjoyable but the editing could have used a faster pace to make the experience more engaging throughout. It doesn’t help that much of the pace drags in the first half and not enough stakes are presented to pick up an otherwise stale, if not entirely uninvolving, pace.
Verdict: Mads Mikkelsen shines in this uneven tale of survival that could have used more time in the editing room.
Arctic will be released in the US by Bleecker Street Media later this year.