Review: Arctic is an unexpected survival movie

Hannibal’s Mads Mikkelsen is terrific as the survivor of a plane crash near the top of the world


ARCTIC (Joe Penna). 97 minutes. Some subtitles. Opens Friday (February 8). See listing. Rating: NNNN


Somewhere near the top of the world, there is a man, alone and cold, living in the wreckage of a crashed cargo plane. He’s been there for a while – weeks, maybe even months.

He’s alive and well, if not comfortable, having established a shelter and a series of tasks to keep him going while he awaits rescue. The name on his parka is Overgård, but after a few minutes we realize there’s no way to know whether the parka is his. 

The man is played by Mads Mikkelsen, the angular, occasionally feral character actor you may know from Hannibal, Doctor Strange and Rogue One. The movie is Arctic, which I have been mistyping as Alive ever since I saw it, and not without reason.

Arctic is a survival movie, but not the one you might expect it has all the requisite genre elements – harsh weather, bad luck, mounting misery, a bear – but director Joe Penna and his co-writer, Ryan Morrison, play those cards in unexpected ways. Their hero would almost certainly be better off if he just stayed put, but something happens that shatters his routine and forces him to consider risking his own safety for the sake of another’s. 

That’s really all you need to know about Arctic, which plays out with minimal dialogue and maximum exertion on Mikkelsen’s part, as the actor traverses glaciers and scales rock faces in relative silence. Penna presents the story as a series of logistical challenges, with the increasingly desperate hero forced to make one dangerous decision after another for the noblest possible reason. We know he’s making the more difficult choice, but we also understand why, and as the story progresses Mikkelsen shows us the weight of every contradiction, frustration and desperate victory. 

Arctic is, ultimately, a movie about waking up to the possibility of hope after a long dull silence – and if you’re going to put that on one actor’s shoulders, Mikkelsen is just the guy for it. He grabs the parka – or the flare or the axe or whatever – and gets to work. 

@normwilner

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