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A plane crashes in remote snowbound wilderness and two strangers, a man and a woman, struggle to survive, their only comfort being that they are not alone. That might sound like last year’s The Mountain Between Us, in which biting cold and chapped lips were the only factors restraining the contrived romantic melodrama. But Arctic, for all intents and purposes, is a solo show whose direct precursor is J.C. Chandor’s 2013 Robert Redford vehicle, All is Lost. Joe Penna’s endurance challenge takes place on land, not at sea, but it’s similarly stripped down, relying on minimal dialogue and no obvious allegorical dimension beyond the primal faceoff between man and nature.
Brazilian writer-director Penna first turned heads with his popular YouTube content, combining mad stop-motion editing skills with creditable musicianship, and playing everything from Mozart to Queen on guitar, slide whistle, root beer bottles and deflating balloons, among other instruments. He’s since branched beyond his MysteryGuitarMan channel into advertising, music videos (including Avicii’s “You Make Me”), short films and television.
Little trace of Penna’s whimsical background is evident in his mostly grim first feature, co-written with his editor, Ryan Morrison. Nor is there much of the feel for rhythm and surprise that might have made this rigorous exercise more than a showcase for an impressively committed Mads Mikkelsen in a drama that becomes something of a grind. Nature throws a whole lot of perilous obstacles in the path of his character, Overgard, but with the exception of one terrifying close encounter with a polar bear, the movie is inconsistent in its ability to build and sustain suspense.
The self-evident difficulty of shooting in the highlands of Iceland, on a frozen tundra whipped by howling winds, icy rains and blizzards, certainly commands admiration. But the storytelling lacks the excitement to pull us in on a personal level to Overgard’s struggle.
The filmmakers’ intention obviously was to peel away any extraneous detail and present their main character as an outline of a man who will be torn between cautious immobility and courageous risk, self-preservation and galvanizing altruism. It was a bold choice, however, to begin the story some time after the small plane Overgard was piloting has crashed in the middle of a white-blanketed nowhere, a small burial mound of stones seeming to indicate a co-pilot who perished in the accident. It’s unclear how long Overgard has been there, but he’s shown immediately to be a man of strength and resourcefulness, not prone to panic.
In the opening scene, he’s digging and scraping, clearing snow down to the rocks below in what appears to be a trench. Only when Tomas Orn Tomasson’s camera pulls back does the widescreen frame reveal a massive SOS sign, visible from the air. His survival skills also are seen in the holes he’s cut in the ice to set up fishing lines to catch arctic trout. As part of his daily routine, he manually cranks a signal transmitter in the hopes of being picked up by a rescue aircraft.
When his fortune turns and the signal flashes green, a helicopter appears, but heavy winds cause it to crash as Overgard looks on in stunned submission. With the pilot dead and the seriously injured female co-pilot (Maria Thelma Smaradottir) barely breathing, he now has an additional responsibility beyond keeping himself alive.
With his stoic, contemplative manner, Mikkelsen is a compelling actor, and in the early going, there’s momentum enough in his regular reconnaissance forays to check the surrounding territory. He makes trips back and forth from the wrecked chopper to his base camp at the plane, salvaging anything useful like a gas camper stove, a dried noodle supply, extra flares and a map of the area. There’s also the bare bones of interpersonal human drama in his efforts to care for the woman, who regains consciousness only for the briefest intervals, her state of shock, physical weakness and language barrier keeping communication minimal.
Eventually, Overgard realizes that staying put while waiting to be rescued is a major roll of the dice, so he bundles up the woman, loads her onto a makeshift sled and trudges off across the frigid terrain, hauling her behind him. Penna makes sparing use of the somber electronic strings of Joseph Trapanese’s score to give shape to Overgard’s determined quest. But the story becomes slow and repetitive; arduous for the wrong reasons. Another snowstorm, an impassable route, a temporary shelter, a nasty fall that evokes a different survival story: 127 Hours.
Thankfully, Mikkelsen doesn’t have to hack off a limb like James Franco in order to keep going, but he looks like hell, his face almost raw from the unforgiving cold and his calm sense of purpose steadily eroding into bitter despair. The script tests Overgard’s resolve in various ways, though even in a movie as careful as this one to avoid clichéd heroism, the odds of survival always appear to be in his favor, thanks to the quietly stirring force behind Mikkelsen’s eyes.
Arctic is elegantly shot, crisp and unfussy, and seamless in its near-invisible use of digital effects, creating a persuasive you-are-there feeling that’s rare in these days of flashy CG thrills. And it’s the very old-fashioned movie magic of an expressive face that keeps you watching even as the storytelling ambles.
Distributor: Bleecker Street
Cast: Mads Mikkelsen, Maria Thelma Smaradottir
Production companies: Armory Films, XYZ Films, Pegasus Pictures
Director: Joe Penna
Screenwriters: Joe Penna, Ryan Morrison
Producers: Christopher Lemole, Tim Zajaros, Noah C. Haeussner
Executive producers: Martha De Laurentiis, Manu Gargi, Einar Thorsteinsson
Director of photography: Tomas Orn Tomasson
Production designer: Atli Geir Fretarsson
Costume designer: Margret Einarsdottir
Music: Joseph Trapanese
Editor: Ryan Morrison
Casting: Chadwick Struck
Sales: CAA, UTA, XYZ Films
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Midnight)
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