“Don’t worry, they’ll be here tomorrow – or the day after tomorrow – don’t worry”
It’s no surprise that when discussing Joe Penna’s Icelandic survival drama Arctic (2018) with Los Angeles Times, Mads Mikkelsen referred to it as the most arduous shoot of his career. But with the shocking co-production between Iceland and the United States not being based on a true story, unlike Greg McLean’s Jungle (2017) and Kevin Mcdonals’s Touching the Void (2003), is it able to transcend the abstract notion of agony to become truly compelling?
Stranded in the midst of the cheek-whipping winds of the Arctic, Overgård (Mads Mikkelsen) trudges through each day with his mind on one objective – survival. However, his dormant hope of being rescued flares up when a new face appears in his life (Maria Thelma Smáradóttir). Propelled into perilous decision-making by a choking sense of responsibility, Overgård sets out on his most dangerous voyage yet.
With its focus on a hostile environment, the film can’t help but resemble Alejandro González Iñárritu’s The Revenant (2015). The blinding white snow lulls the audience into a state of hushed wonder, only to be jolted awake when a new threat emerges from the blizzard. The suspense of such pacing is aided by Joseph Trapanese’s music, which is a composition of hauntingly eerie sound effects that tease the protagonist’s mental unrest. Its source appears to be the conflict between Overgård’s survival instinct, which pushes him to keep going despite not having anything left to fight for, and the unperturbed grip on his humanity.
Mads Mikkelsen brings the experience to life, making us ache for the commodities we tend to take for granted, with human contact at the top of the list. His character remains undeterred in his pursuit of salvation, burdened by the knowledge that life means nothing if it’s spent in isolation. The likeability of his character plays an important role in the story. His good-natured altruism keeps clashing with external triggers that aim to dehumanise him in every way possible. The most compelling of these tests comes in the form of a choice. Suddenly, the human you kept wishing for becomes an obstacle in your way to self-fulfilment. What do you do then?
The greatest joy in watching Arctic comes from being somewhat locked out of the protagonist’s head. While his humanity appears to be mostly left intact despite the challenges, Mikkelsen’s eyes betray a deeper conflict – one we are left tapping against from the outside. Despite the way the events play out, there is an underlying tension that twists surface-level impressions into internal dilemmas. Whether that was intentional, or if it’s down to Mikkelsen’s interpretive acting, we’ll never know. In a featurette, he did state that he built the character’s backstory in his head, and that he would never reveal it, saying “he learns how to live, instead of just how to survive”. This is quite evident in the film, with layers intricately added to a character of few words.
Perhaps the film’s greatest drawback is its unwavering optimism. While it makes for an inspiring story that warms the heart more than the gas bottle Overgård clutches between frostbitten fingers, it creates an uncomfortably inauthentic reality. The goosebumps we get from witnessing the protagonist’s heart-wrenching agony cannot make up for the deeper horror that remains buried with the people who have had to claw their way through impending death. Maybe Arctic‘s clinging to moral and ethical values is the by-product of a fictitious survival story, and not one distorted by a more harrowing portrayal of the humanity that is sacrificed in the name of survival, as we have witnessed in Touching the Void.
Regardless, Arctic is bound to send adrenaline rushing through the veins of its audience – and maybe even force unwilling minds to face a truth that seems too loud to be ignored by the consciousness.
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