‘Arctic’ Review: It’s Mads vs. Mother Nature in Brutal Survivor Flick | Cannes 2018

     May 11, 2018

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2018 is apparently the year YouTube creators make the jump from monetized video view counters to celebrated feature film directors.  Bo Burnham earned raves for Eighth Grade at Sundance in January and four months later Brazilian YouTuber Joe Penna has debuted Arctic as an out of competition midnight screening at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival.  It’s a compliment to Penna that despite the film’s flaws that, like Burnham, you’d never guess he was anything more than a seasoned director.

Written by Penna and Ryan Morrison, Arctic is a familiar survival tale that finds one man tackling the elements in order to make it to safety.  Luckily, Penna convinced Mads Mikkelsen to play Overgård, the lone survivor of a plane crash somewhere in the middle of the Artic and a character who is in every scene of the movie.

When we first meet him it’s clear Overgård has been waiting to be rescued for weeks if not months.  He has a daily routine of checking on his fishing lines, making sure his massive “SOS” sign is clear of snow and climbing to the top of the nearest hill to send out an electronic alert in hopes of someone hearing his call.  There are dangers from massive snowstorms and, most disconcerting, a massive polar bear that has already ransacked some of his fish reserves.  It’s when a rescue helicopter finally finds him where Overgård’s story takes quite a turn.

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Image via Stefano Baroni

Alerted by his signal, the helicopter attempts to land during an incredibly windy storm.  The pilot can’t control the copter, however, and much to Overgård’s horror it crashes.  Our hero soon discovers the pilot has died and his colleague, an unnamed woman (Maria Thelma Smáradóttir), is the only survivor.  He tends to her wounds, but the woman drifts in and out of consciousness for days never muttering a single word.  All he knows about her is a picture she kept in the coptoer of herself with her husband and child.  The idea her family is waiting for her is what motivated him to want to get them both home.

Not that surprisingly, there is a silver lining to the crash.   The copter was stocked with needed supplies including food, a lighter, flares and, most importantly, a real map of the region.  That map informs Overgård of a seasonal safehouse nearby that could provide them with shelter.  It’s quite a distance away, transporting her on a sled will be arduous and there’s that bear to worry about, but he persists knowing it may be the only way to save his new companion.  It will be more difficult than he could have ever imagined.

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Image via Stefano Baroni

Penna shows a good amount of skill in weaving a narrative and creating natural tension.  He also, however, leaves very few clues about Overgård’s previous life along the way and, in hindsight, that’s something of a mistake.  It ends up leaving the audience only with a driven Mikkelsen to root for (as opposed to a three-dimensional character) although it doesn’t hurt that it’s obvious to anyone watching he endured a great deal making this film.   Almost every scene is set outside somewhere in the frozen tundra with a soundstage nowhere in sight.  Mikkelsen looks exhausted half the time and as the film progresses you begin to wonder if that’s actually the result of the elements more than his actual performance.

Penna is assisted by some beautiful cinematography from little known Tómas Örn Tómasson who uses the Icelandic landscape to give the film needed scope.   On the other hand, Joseph Trapanese’s score sounds awfully familiar and at times attempts to pull the heartstrings a little stronger than need be.

Mikkelsen impressively carries the film on his back as well as shoulders, freezing hands and feet when he needs to (he even hops and drags his body across the snow at times).  He also puts more emotional layers into barely defined character better than few actors could.  It goes without saying that Penna is simply blessed to have him.  The overall journey, however, often seems too arduous for where the narrative eventually ends up.  And when you’re film clocks in at just 1 hour and 37 min that’s a problem.

Grade: B-

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