The Arctic is planet Earth at its rawest. The untamed, unforgiving northern expanse of ice and tundra is terrifying in its brutality, austerely beautiful in its isolation.
So, too, is “Arctic,” a survivalist story that mimics its namesake by stripping the genre down to its bare elements. There’s no character arc, no fussy camera work, little in the way of plot and maybe a minute or two’s worth of dialogue. It is simply one man’s determination not to die pitted against nature’s determination to kill him.
Director Joe Penna’s approach is determined, and he’s crafted a nail-biter that never wavers from its minimalism. Occasionally, “Arctic” threatens to be more interesting as a film exercise than as an actual film. That it is compelling beyond the details of its construction is a testament to the assurance of Penna’s direction and the power of Mads Mikkelsen’s performance.
Mikkelsen is almost never not onscreen. We met him in media res, as he puts the finishing touches on a large-lettered “SOS” carved into the snow. He’s clearly been plane-wrecked in the Arctic for some time, long enough at least to have orchestrated a system for survival.
His days are regulated by wristwatch alarm: a beep for when it’s time to check his ice-fishing poles; a beep for when it’s time to fillet and eat a raw fish; a beep for when it’s time to retreat to his downed plane’s cabin and zip himself into a sleeping bag for some rest; a beep for when it’s time to search for nearby aircraft, his only hope for rescue. It seems a long shot, until one day a helicopter appears.
Quickly his hope is dashed, the helicopter felled by wild winds, killing the pilot and grievously injuring his partner. The rescued becomes the rescuer, the man pulling an unconscious young woman from the burning crash. Like the man, there’s little to identify her, just a photograph of her in happier times, smiling over a baby — and a map that shows the way to the nearest base. It is days away on foot, longer still when navigating the world’s most punishing terrain while dragging an unconscious woman on a sled. But there’s no unseeing the baby in the photograph. The man has no moral choice but to abandon the safety of his crash site to undertake a desperate rescue mission.
“Arctic” is a film that exists in the moment. There is no backstory; there is only now. The narrative is as spare as the landscape, which is shot without an excess of romance to an unassuming but effective score, the filmmaking unfussy but never workmanlike. Though the journey is well executed and the tension sustained, the obstacles are so familiar to the genre — inclement weather, tricky rock formations, grumpy bears — they can feel ordinary.
With so little dialogue and no exposition, Mikkelsen must convey the entirety of his character through the subtlety of body language, facial expressions and breath. Hope, fear, empathy, disbelief, determination and resignation all register on his wind-ravaged face. He’s called upon the carry the entire film, like his character is called upon to drag a body through the Arctic.
Still, through no fault of Mikkelsen’s, the emotional investment is a little thin throughout. The only human grace note is the photograph the man regularly presses into the fading woman’s hand. For her, it serves as a gentle reminder of what she has to live for; for him, it’s the needed motivation to keep pressing on when the task ahead feels impossible. All hope rests on a baby we never meet, whose mother’s name we never learn. It’s a lot of investment to ask of an audience that’s given so little to cling to.
Bleecker Street presents a film directed by Joe Penna and written by Penna and Ryan Morrison. Rated PG-13 (for language and some bloody images). Running time: 98 minutes. Opens Friday at local theaters.