When we first meet Mads Mikkelsen in the life-or-death drama Arctic he’s got chills and unfortunately they are multiplying. As the lone survivor of a plane crash in a vast snowfield, he is sleepwalking through a Groundhog Day groove of survival. Swaddled in all-weather outerwear – the nametag on his grubby red parka identifies him as “Overgard” – the shivering Dane cycles robotically through a daily routine tending the rickety camp he has bodged together around the downed aircraft’s fuselage.
Prodded by a schedule of alarms on his watch, he grimly chisels out a gigantic SOS sign in the snow despite the fact the sky remains resolutely empty. Then he checks his ad hoc ice-fishing holes in hope of finding a trout. Then he heaves a chunky GPS transponder up a hill to hand-crank enough electricity to bring it back to tentative, beeping life. Then he trudges back to base, zips himself up into a sleeping bag and does it all again the next day. During these early scenes, the camera itself seems frozen in place, capturing static vistas of immense but bleak beauty as the convincingly weather-beaten Mikkelsen shuffles through the frame.
Judging by the scraggly beard and iffy, whiffy state of his blackened toes, this has been going on for some time. But suitably for a film where a hazardous but numbing present has blotted out all thoughts of past or future we never hear about the circumstances that left him clinging to life at the end of the world. The similarly stranded Matt Damon in The Martian dealt with being alone and in mortal danger by yammering away endlessly in a series of video diaries. Overgard is a man taciturn to the extreme, as impassive as the looming mountains that surround his crash site. He is a sub-zero Crusoe, frozen emotionally as much as physically. By this point, you are either fully invested in an austere one-man survival saga because of Mikkelsen’s soulfully stoic performance or you are getting a teensy bit bored and hoping a polar bear abandons their perch on a Fox’s glacier mint and ambles overto eat him.
Overgard and Arctic both get a crucial disruptive jolt with the dramatic arrival of a young woman (never named, but played by Icelandic actor Maria Thelma Smáradóttir). Her situation rapidly becomes even more precarious than Overgard’s, which upends his strict regime and belatedly inspires him to plan a marathon do-or-die expedition to reach help. This is where the film finds a gear that is somehow even more gruelling, as Overgard goes to desperate lengths to ferry and protect someone who is essentially a complete stranger. Can they possibly make it beyond the mountains? Is there some intangible nobility in merely trying?
Arctic is the feature-length debut of writer and director Joe Penna, an industrious Brazilian filmmaker who broke through with a series of inventive short films on YouTube. That an artist who unexpectedly carved out a hugely successful career on social media has created a story that deliberately maroons his protagonist so far away from the tendrils of the internet feels like an intriguing sidenote. But even with such a disconnected, standalone tale, Penna proves himself to be a compelling storyteller. Like the best survival yarns, there is a visceral feel to every tiny triumph or setback that Overgard encounters. And if you must spend 90 minutes mostly staring at the same face, Mikkelsen’s sculpted features contain multitudes, despite the convincingly crinkly eyes, blotched cheeks and chapped lips. Artfully and empathetically shot, Arctic is a contemplative reminder about the difference between simply living and having something to live for.