Survival films have had a presence in modern cinema since the 1930s. Since the days of Robinson Crusoe, people have had a fascination with the ‘What If?’ scenarios that people can find themselves in. The survival genre of films has experienced a rise to prominence with the likes of The Grey, The Revenant and Everest becoming award winning, box office hits. People are more fascinated than ever in the idea of human survival in inhospitable conditions.
With the resurgence of the survival genre, Arctic has been released when the bar set for survival films is at its highest. Does it meet this bar, or does it get lost in the snow? Arctic is a fantastic film however you look at it. It sticks to some of the tropes of survival films as I feel all films in this genre seem to abide by but approaches it from such an interesting way which allows Arctic to stand out from the rest.
Arctic follows the journey of Overgard (Mads Mikkelsen). Stranded in the cold wastes of the Arctic, his life follows a regimented and methodical direction. Each day is spent catching fish and putting in place ways from him to be rescued before retiring to his downed plane. When the helicopter that eventually spots him crashes trying to rescue him he now must contend with looking after one of the half conscious and wounded crewmembers. Now he must decide to step out of his routine to save her life.
Firstly, the unique aspects of Arctic. The film has little to no dialog. Mikkelsen is by himself in this film. The only other character is barely conscious. He doesn’t much talk to himself or have any internal monologue. It’s just a man contending with the cold isolation of his environment. This means all the plot of this film is told entirely in its cinematography and images. With this limitation a story is still brought forth in the film. With its minimalist approach, Arctic still imparts plenty plot elements and themes in the small, intimate moments it has. Blink and you’ll miss it but there is a very rich film here.
There is no character background for Overgard, no emotional or mental grounding. The only thing the audience can grasp to attach themselves to the character are how he approaches the challenges in front of him. His survival and his experiences form him and then change him as he trudges through the snow-covered wastes. Mikkelsen owns this role. He has made subtlety an art form as he projects and informs so much with so little. He has gone over and above to make a character who is designed to be nothing so engaging.
Arctic is an intriguing film. There is a lot to unpack in the film and at the same time there isn’t. Its delivery is so very simple, just a man alone trying to survive, yet its sound design, cinematography and stunning performance from Mikkelsen come together to create an experience that sticks in your mind long after the credits roll.