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Arctic is a pure distillation of the man vs. nature genre

It’s Mads Mikkelsen versus the Arctic wilderness in first-time director Joe Penna’s arthouse survival film.

Mads Mikkelsen stars as a stranded and determined man in Arctic
Mads Mikkelsen stars as a stranded and determined man in Arctic.
Cannes Film Festival
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

The “human vs. unfeeling homicidal environment” genre is crowded with entries, with man (and sometimes woman) battling nature on boats, in the wilderness, between mountains, on deserted islands, in Amazon jungles, among bears, on the unforgiving American plains, in murderous caves, and countless other locales not designed for human flourishing.

In fact, you could argue that man versus nature is the original genre of realism. One of the oldest examples in English, Daniel Defoe’s 1719 novel Robinson Crusoe, is widely considered to be the beginning of realistic fiction in literature — and possibly the first English novel, to boot.

Arctic, the first feature film from Brazilian director Joe Penna (mainly known before his Cannes debut for his popular YouTube channel), is one of the purest distillations of that centuries-old struggle. Starring Mads Mikkelsen as a resourceful man stranded in the Arctic wilderness, Arctic doesn’t employ too many fancy tricks or frills: It’s just a simple, straight-ahead survival drama that lets Mikkelsen showcase his considerable acting chops, leaving viewers as impressed with his stamina as we are with his character’s.

Arctic is an austere survival movie pared down to its most primal elements

Most survival movies aren’t simply about survival; the isolation, feats of endurance, and strength are the backdrop for explorations of human nature. So they combine elements of disaster movies (what on earth will go wrong next?) and occasionally horror films with existential drama about man’s relationship to himself, the environment, and occasionally to his fellow man or woman.

Directed by Penna from a screenplay he co-wrote with first-time feature writer Ryan Morrison, Arctic boils this down to its very simplest elements. Whether that grabs you probably has a lot to do with how much of a charge you get from watching someone struggle against the elements.

Mads Mikkelsen and the unforgiving landscape in Arctic
Mads Mikkelsen and the unforgiving landscape in Arctic.
Cannes Film Festival

Arctic has a simple a linear narrative, in which Overgard (Mikkelsen), who’s clearly been stranded for a long time, must overcome catastrophe after catastrophe to reach his goal. Clearly, Overgard has been living for some time in the hull of his crashed airplane and has a whole system down. His digital watch beeps to signal when it’s time to turn from one activity to the next. He’s rigged up a fishing system that allows him to eat raw trout caught beneath the ice, and he’s dug a giant “SOS” into the snow so it can be seen from above, on the off-chance that a helicopter may happen by.

One day, one does. But in the wind and snow, the rescue attempt goes awry. One helicopter pilot dies; the other survives but is nearly catatonic. Overgard is left with responsibilities he hadn’t anticipated that test his stamina and will to live.

Arctic is so stark and unvarnished that it sometimes feels monotonous

Arctic’s humanism is stripped down, almost elemental. We don’t know anything about Overgard at all. By the end, we barely know any more. He’s a blank slate, an avatar for mankind.

The responsibility he feels toward the woman from the helicopter is similarly simple: She is a human, nearly silent throughout the entire film, and she needs to be protected. The relationship that develops between them, if you could call it such a thing, is one of primal dependence in the face of a huge, snowy, barren landscape.

In fact, there’s hardly anything that qualifies as dialogue in this film, with only a few words spoken throughout. The rest of the work has to be done by Mikkelsen, who does not, to be perfectly honest, look like he’s having very much fun, though the emotion and resolve on his face gives us just enough context to understand that his character is not going to back down. There are injuries and faulty maps, wildlife and shifting terrain, and his small figure is dwarfed and set in relief against a big, snow-swept landscape. (The film was shot in endlessly cinematic Iceland.)

Mads Mikkelsen in Arctic
Mads Mikkelsen in Arctic.
Cannes Film Festival

In the end, this is an arthouse survival movie, very quiet, not reliant on flash and effects so much as its lead’s incredible will to endure. Arctic is stark and visceral, stripped of any distracting elements, and for the survival movie purist, it’s an artful entry into the genre.

Survival movies aren’t everyone’s cup of tea (something Overgard could really use by the end of the film), and this won’t be either. With Overgard kept studiously free of any real character details, the movie can start to feel strangely monotonous, an endless cavalcade of catastrophe that at times stretches the limits of credibility. (At my screening, some people couldn’t help but chuckle at times: How many more problems can this poor guy run into?) But Arctic manages to back away from turning into full-on disaster porn by keeping a tight focus on Mikkelsen’s performance.

You could say that Arctic is about the “triumph of the indomitable human spirit” or something, but that feels faintly absurd. Arctic doesn’t have that kind of epic pretension. It’s just a tale of a man who keeps on going. Minimalist and icy, Arctic captures the utter indifference of wild nature to human existence — and the will of some humans to keep on existing anyhow.

Arctic premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2018. It opens in theaters on February 1.