Arctic: Lost and Found, by David Bax
J.C. Chandor’s All Is Lost, from 2013, is a decent enough movie in its own right but even if it weren’t, if nothing else, it would have given us an easy reference point for the subgenre of solemn survival thrillers. The latest of these is Joe Penna’s Arctic, which trades Chandor’s ocean for miles of unforgiving snow and Robert Redford for Mads Mikkelsen. Arctic eventually adds some narrative wrinkles to All Is Lost’s monastic straightforwardness but it stands out less for those than for its naturalism. Where Chandor’s rigidity only allowed Redford one single word of dialogue, Mikkelsen (terrific here) gets to behave in a more human way, by which I mean that, like any of us would, he says “fuck” a bunch of times.
When we meet Mikkelsen’s Overgård, we have no idea how long he’s been stranded in the Arctic but, over the course of the patient opening scenes, we gather that it’s at least long enough for him to have established routines (heading to higher ground to crank up the plane’s distress signal box), build food-gathering contraptions (poles with strings descending into holes cut out of the ice of a frozen lake) and to dig an enormous “SOS” into the snow near the remains of the crashed airplane where he takes shelter. A sudden change in events, though, forces him to decide between continuing indefinitely in this manner or risking his life by trying to walk out.
Shooting in the expanses of Iceland, cinematographer Tómas Örn Tómasson is lucky enough to have gorgeous vistas in seemingly any direction he points his camera. He goes further, though, gauging the light so that it’s bright enough to be harsh and dull enough to keep you from forgetting how cold it is. Meanwhile, Penna handles the CGI enhancements well, as there are almost none that are noticeable.
Arctic’s thematic concerns are in just as capable a set of hands as its technical ones. It’s clear, though unspoken, that Overgård’s many daily rituals are not only keeping him physically alive but sane and human as well. Still, how long can one person go on simply maintaining until what they’re doing can no longer be called living? When a turn of events suddenly gives him new tools to work with, it also seems to knock him free from his water-treading state and remind him what’s out there and what it might be worth risking.
Arctic thus becomes a distillation of what life, humanity and civilization mean; not just how they are defined but what they represent to us. Things like warmth, touch and carbohydrates aren’t luxuries, Penna and co-screenwriter Ryan Morrison argue. They are among the reasons to go on surviving at all.
Of course, surviving is easier said than done, especially in Overgård’s case. Arctic is not solely a rumination. It’s also a thriller. The obstacles thrown in his path—including what we’ll call Chekhov’s polar bear, glimpsed from a distance early on—are not easily overcome and are shot, edited and mixed with an eye toward forcing you to lean forward in your chair. Overgård pushes on, though, even with his map folded in such a way that he can’t see his destination. That makes him just like the rest of us.