Can a film be both really good and yet stereotypical in every way? “Arctic” is the best film of 2019, so far. The survival thriller received a ten-minute standing ovation at the Cannes Film Festival, but there isn’t much to celebrate in this compact 90-minute thriller that you can’t find elsewhere. With so little dialogue, Mads Mikkelsen (“The Hunt,” “At Eternity’s Gate”) is forced to captivate the audience through a silent display of emotions and actions. The script includes predictable tropes like bear attacks, coping with injuries, hunger, etc. The first twenty minutes of “Arctic” is certainly more original than “The Mountain Between Us,” which I believe was the last big screen “survive the cold” flick we had. First-time feature filmmaker Joe Penna is off to a good start, but a little more depth would have made this film less sophomoric.
Stranded in a remote area of the Arctic, Overgård (Mikkelsen) has been there long enough to develop a routine of ice fishing for food, climbing up the nearest hill to send distress calls using a hand-cranked radio and managing the loss of one toe. Another daily routine is visiting the grave of his co-pilot. His diligence with the radio proves successful when he spots a nearby rescue helicopter, but weather conditions prove disastrous for the rescue team and Overgård. With more than just himself to look after now, he must decide whether to stay put near the plane wreckage or venture out into the dangerous wilds of the Arctic toward what he believes to be a seasonal rescue station.
Most survival movies play out the same way. The first part of the script excites us with how clever and resourceful the survivor is only to watch them become more desperate and reckless in the second part. Seeing how Overgård got into his current situation isn’t particularly necessary, at this point Hollywood has given us we have every plane crash scene imaginable. A bit more information about this character we follow for 90 minutes would have been a better use of screen time. “Adrift,” last year’s survival on the high seas film, had characters that were refreshingly well-developed, with an atypical, female heroine. “Arctic” has nothing like that. The helicopter pilot is female, but she never says anything on-screen.
“Arctic” steps out of the mundane when it asks the viewer whether or not you would risk your life to save another’s, and for how long? The suspense Penna creates up to the point of this conundrum, is nearly deflated when the audience realizes the existential direction the film is heading. Fortunately, the immersive structure of this film becomes its salvation. It’s the first film released in 2019 that offers any type of challenge to the viewer, as light as that challenge might be. Penna’s script could have fared so much better if he had written with less of the same sequences we see in every survival movie.
Final Thought: “Arctic” exposes the viewer to chilly comparisons, heart pounding stereotypes, and persuasive allegory.