Arctic is an Icelandic survival film directed by Joe Penna (his first feature film) and written by Penna and Ryan Morrison. This Iceland-United States co-production premiered at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival and hit theaters in February the following year.
As much as I really hate the cold, I really like this film … but it’s not fun to watch. It’s the story of a man (Mads Mikkelsen) stranded in the Arctic after a plane crash, who must choose between two basically impossible options: stay in the relative safety of his makeshift plane-wreckage camp (and likely die) or embark on a deadly trek through “the unknown” in the frozen Arctic landscape to try to save himself and an injured woman (Maria Thelma Smáradóttir). Neither choice seems “good,” let alone survivable. Even streaming the film on my TV, it was riveting; it made me feel so doomed and scared and cold, and like I could feel every frozen inch of the man’s poor freezing body as if it were my own. I literally felt cold for days, and I watched it in August, for crying out loud. I can’t imagine seeing this movie on the big screen because it would be even more horrific. Oliver Jones of The New York Observer said it was, “precise, honest and unrelenting,” and added that it “is one of those singular cinematic experiences … for which movie theaters still exist.”
The film exudes absolute physical and emotional / psychological misery from start to finish. It seems longer than it actually is because it is so grueling to watch. I mean, every literal step taken by the main character — in thigh- or waist-high snow and ice — is grueling to us, the audience. The film was shot over only 19 days in Iceland, and Mikkelsen has said it was the most difficult shoot of his career; I believe him. Personally, it’s another nail in the coffin for me when it comes to having any desire to ever travel to places like Alaska or the Arctic or Antarctica or anywhere deadly cold. That said, it’s a remarkable film, a really well-made story of a freezing hell in a frozen hellscape.
Mikkelsen’s character is named Overgård, but I don’t think I actually knew that until I looked up the film after watching it. As I watched it, to me he was just “the man in the film.” It’s a perfect portrayal from Mikkelsen, who conveys more emotion in one frozen eyebrow than most well-known “actors” today do with their entire bodies and voices. By the way, Mikkelsen’s character says barely a word in this mostly silent movie, but his grunts of effort and screams of agony are spine-chilling. David Ehrlich of Indiewire called it “one of the best movies ever made about a man stranded in the wilderness.” Ehrlich also said that “Mads Mikkelsen doesn’t need any dialogue to deliver the best performance of his career.” I agree, 100%. Overgård’s heroic journey is a tale of endurance and unselfish survival, which makes it even harder to watch because there are times when you can’t help but think he’s nuts to not leave the injured woman behind. Several times I muttered, “Jeezus, just save yourself!”
So, here’s what happens. A man, Overgård, is stranded in the Arctic Circle, an unforgiving hostile landscape. Why he was there, alone, in the first place, and for how long he’s been stranded, we don’t know, but he’s been there for quite a long time. Overgård lives in the wreckage of his crashed plane. The weather is freezing cold, with either blinding winds/snow/ice slicing down/across/around Overgård and his camp or the blindingly bright Arctic sun, which offers no warmth. No matter what the weather, every day he checks his fishing lines, maps his surroundings, maintains his giant “SOS” carved in the snow, and sends out a distress beacon on a hand-crank dynamo. The film definitely makes you feel how cold and virtually hopeless is the situation. We see that, at this point, Overgård is just passively surviving. One day, his fish supply is raided by a polar bear, and that’s the signal in the story that virtual hopelessness is morphing into acute desperation.
But wait! Hope seems restored when a helicopter responds to Overgård’s distress signal. Now, remember: the landscape is hostile, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that the helicopter crashes as it tries to land. Even though it isn’t a surprise ~ I mean, the movie would be a very short film if Overgård was rescued then ~ still, the helicopter crashing is depressingly horrifying. Overgård makes it to the wreckage of the chopper, where he finds the pilot (Tintrinai Thikhasuk) dead and the one passenger (Maria Thelma Smáradóttir) severely injured and unconscious. He staples her stomach wound closed (ugh!) and bandages it as best he can, bundles her up in blankety things (for the rest of the film, she is like a mummy, completely swaddled), and manages to get her to his plane-wreckage camp. When she regains consciousness, it turns out that she doesn’t speak English; for the rest of the film, she squeezes his hand to prove she’s conscious. This silent swaddled near-corpse of a human is the film’s metaphor for the human need for connection.
Overgård is now determined to take action to save the woman, and therefore himself. He goes back to the helicopter wreckage, finding some food, a propane cook stove, medical equipment, a sled, a map of the area, and a photo of the woman with the pilot and their child (he puts the photo in his pocket). On the map, he sees there’s a seasonal refuge that seems to be just a few days’ journey away; seasonal refuges are structures with walls and a roof (shelter), and supplies (food) and a radio (to contact help). Back at his plane-wreckage camp, the woman’s condition isn’t improving, so he decides they must risk the journey to the seasonal refuge, from which they can seek rescue. He straps the bundled woman to the sled, and dragging it behind him, he begins their journey.
The “silent movie” aspect of Arctic is most powerful as we see Overgård hauling the sled overland for miles and miles through deep snowdrifts, across icy areas, up and down, in the blinding sun, bitter winds, and everything else the miserable land has to offer. Seriously, every step he takes, every grunt and groan he utters, hurts to watch. Mikkelsen’s acting doesn’t even seem like acting; he’s entirely believable in his complete misery, and it is uncomfortable to watch.
Things go from bad to worse, when, having passed the farthest point he’d previously gone from his plane-wreckage camp, he comes up against a steep slope that isn’t on the helicopter’s map. He climbs up alone to check it out and finds it a relatively smooth path with little crosswind. Overgard goes back down and then repeatedly tries to drag the woman up a snowy slope (it’s so painful to watch his efforts). He realizes that the slope is just too steep. They’ll have to go around the slope, along a path exposed to the wind, adding at least three days to their travel time. The new route is even worse, weather-wise, than we ~ I mean, they ~ have already experienced. They are half-starved, frost-bitten and freezing, and, now that we know the helicopter’s map isn’t accurate, for all intents and purposes it feels like they are basically lost. Overgård is still hauling a lot of supplies and pulling the sled laden with the semi-conscious injured woman: it’s terrible to watch him keep going, because you can feel his physical effort and pain. Again, Mikkelson carries the weight of these scenes, literally and figuratively; it’s a tour de force performance. I cannot say it enough times: every step he takes physically and psychologically hurts the viewer
One night, Overgård finds a cave, and for refuge he pulls the sled into it, and cooks some fish on the propane cook stove. Suddenly the entrance of the cave is filled by a terrifying polar bear ~ probably attracted to smell of fish, but who knows or cares ~ that monster isn’t going to be placated by some fish! Overgård manages to scare off the bear by firing a distress flare at it. Whew.
The next day, the arduous journey continues, and the woman’s condition worsens; she hasn’t been conscious much or eaten much lately. Overgård believes she is near death, so he decides to abandon her.
Honestly, who can blame him? I mean, he’s been weighed down and slowed down by her and all the supplies he’s carried to keep them both alive. If he hadn’t been dragging her behind him, he would’ve packed lighter, and taken that “easy path” up that steep slope ~ he would already be at the seasonal refuge, awaiting rescue. He leaves her with the family photo that he found in the helicopter wreckage.
Fate does not reward his decision. Not far from where he left the dying woman, he falls in a crevasse, and is knocked unconscious. When he wakes up, he finds himself in even more trouble: he’s to at the bottom of a cavern, and one of his legs is trapped under a boulder. My god, what more can one man endure?? (rhetorical question, but I believed I yelled it out loud to my TV).
Overgård is no quitter, though, and he manages to free his leg, but he injures it in the process. Now grievously wounded, and even more desperate, he crawls out of the cavern and makes it up to the surface. The entire process of freeing his leg and getting to the surface involves a lot of grunting and groaning and screaming. Maybe he just grunted and groaned, and I was the one screaming; I’m really not sure, because by this time, we were as one.
There’s no way for Overgård to go forward; he is too wounded, too weak. He decides to go back to the where he left the woman; he feels like he shouldn’t have left her, and now he is willing and ready to die by her side. He makes it back to her, still lying bundled up on the sled, and he discovers that she is not dead; it is an emotional scene. Renewed with hope, Overgård determines that he will try again to get them both to the seasonal refuge, and ~ wounded, groaning, battling everything the Arctic throws at him ~ he starts off again, dragging the sled behind him.
The film ends almost abruptly: nearly at the end of his strength, he sees a helicopter has landed in the distance. Overgård lights his remaining distress flare, but the helicopter’s crew doesn’t seem to see it. As a last act of desperation, Overgård sets his own parka on fire, screaming and waving the burning parka over his head. He sees the helicopter take off and disappear behind a mountain. This moment is so awful; I have no words, but I remember I was weeping, loudly. I just couldn’t take any more. Overgård, too, is done: he lies down next in the snow to the woman, takes her hand, and prepares to meet his fate. His eyes close, as the helicopter lands right behind them
Mikkelsen has said Arctic is “a film about the difference between surviving and being alive. It’s a film about humanity.” He’s correct, of course; the film is a great metaphor for both the brutality of and the hopeful nature of humanity. For me, this film is more exhausting than hopeful, but that’s probably because I hate the cold so much that I can’t imagine “being in” the film’s premise: being in the Arctic in the first place! Anyway, it’s a hard movie to watch, but Mikkelsen makes every second worth your exhaustion and discomfort. I can’t recommend it enough, but I advise you to watch it whilst nestled under lots of blankets, with plenty of food and water (or warm beverages) on hand. Oh, and you’ll probably need a box of Kleenex, too.