The survivalist narrative is one that is well-trod: we’ve seen it in “127 Hours,” “Into the Wild,” “The Revenant” and perhaps the pinnacle of the genre, “Cast Away.” There’s a particular formula that is often stringently adhered to: A lost (white) man, insurmountable odds ahead, some memory of a woman or family buoying him forward. Something will inevitably go wrong, the man will fix it, scream into the void at some point with a “Why God” soliloquy and eventually find some sort of spiritual redemption. No matter whether he lives or dies, he is a hero or martyr, overcoming struggles of nature in order to prevail as the One True Man.
“Arctic,” the new outing from director Joe Penna and starring Mads Mikkelsen, is a technically impressive contribution to this frequently-traversed cinematic territory, both thoroughly researched and convincingly portrayed. Though it generally strays away from overtly playing into these aforementioned tropes (Mikkelsen’s character never eats a raw bison liver, for example), the film falters in its treatment of its female character and overall lack of narrative innovation.
The obviously noteworthy part of this film is its commitment to a convincing portrayal of the arctic tundra. “Arctic” begins with the sound of Overgård (Mikkelsen) breathing — a sound nearly indistinguishable from the icy winds blustering over the tundra. Overgård, whose background and reason for being in the arctic is unclear, has been stranded for so long that he has an extensive routine and means of survival. The days pass by unmarked by any significant milestones: He fishes, tries to radar help, scans the horizon for friends or foes and returns to his tiny demolished airplane cabin to sleep.
The first part of the film is the strongest and perhaps the most intriguing, reeling you in with the relatively mundane, but carefully thought out machinations of what it would take to survive in this environment. There are nice details woven into the material aspects of survival — like Overgård’s excitement upon discovering some chips after living on a diet exclusively composed of fish.
But the film could not be sustained just with the endless cycles of Overgård’s routine. The film’s second act throws a wrench into Overgård’s well-hewn survival plan. In a rescue attempt, two helicopter pilots crash, leaving one dead and one in a comatose state. Overgård rescues the female pilot (María Thelma Smáradóttir), bringing her back to his site and taking care of her in her rapidly declining state.
The latter part of the film follows Overgård making the decision to leave his camp and its relative stability to get to a point of possible rescue. He and “Young Woman,” as she is referred to in the credits, then trek across the hostile terrain, encountering all possible obstacles in order to reach a safer location.
There’s something jarring about the decision to have the only other character in the film be a comatose woman of color, and even more jarring that all of her scenes are literally just Overgård dragging her around, feeding her and deciding whether she lives or dies. Her entire being is resting on the goodwill of this man and the way her body is portrayed as object-like is concerning. The woman is supposed to simultaneously be Overgård’s motivation for continuing on, his inspiration and his character foil, but she is essentially given as much agency as Wilson the Volleyball in “Cast Away.”
The film also strives for a narrative sense of isolation to parallel the isolation Overgård is experiencing, but this can only sustain the film for so long. Even at the end, Overgård’s motivations and history are unclear. There’s something to be said for the tendency toward the minimalistic in this sort of film, particularly in the sparse environs that the film takes place in, but there’s a discrepancy between what the audience sees and the context in which it is happening.
Mikkelsen’s performance as the determined Overgård is well-done, communicating the harsh physical realities of surviving in the arctic while remaining generally stony in his demeanor. Like that performance, this film does succeed with its contributions as a technically vivid and realistic portrayal, but lacks in the narrative moments that could have made it really great.