Arctic is a new survival thriller directed by Joe Penna in his feature debut and starring Mads Mikkelsen. In the film, Mikkelsen plays a man who, stranded in the wilderness, must decide whether to leave the safety of his camp or make the perilous journey back to society. It debuted at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival to positive reviews.
In terms of story, the movie is pretty straightforward. It’s a survival thriller — a man is stranded and must try to stay alive despite the obstacles he faces. Because the genre is so tried-and-true and contains so many classics and fan favorites, it is often hard for films like this to stand out. However, Arctic takes a more contemplative approach, and in so doing feels quite refreshing.
A big part of what makes the movie work is the development of the protagonist. He is the only important character in the film. There is another person involved in the story, but she is nothing more than a device to further build the protagonist. The protagonist is complex and sympathetic because of the actions he takes in the movie. He is given little backstory, but it wouldn’t have been necessary anyway.
The film benefits from having a strong emotional grounding. As a result of the relationship he forms with the unnamed young woman, the protagonist becomes even more sympathetic. It becomes more than just wanting a person to survive — it becomes wanting a person to succeed in their goals to become a better person. This is even more compelling than simple survival.
Mikkelsen absolutely drives the movie. He gives a powerhouse performance that is entirely irreplaceable. There is no way that the film would have been this good without him since it is a one-man show. The script is very light on dialogue, and as such, Mikkelsen is required to do a lot with his facial expressions and mannerisms. He does a great job of infusing emotion and nuance into the character.
Additionally, the movie does a very good job of building suspense. It isn’t the most intense thriller you will watch, but that isn’t what it’s meant to be. Instead, the story is meant to be a slow burn with two or three moments of intensity. The suspense comes not from excitement, but prolonged tension and anticipation. You aren’t so much wondering what is going to happen to the protagonist along the way, but rather what will happen to him in the end.
The film is also great on a technical level. The visuals are superb, doing a great job of creating that cold feeling of entrapment which is so important to the tone and overall feel. There are a lot of great shots that are beautiful despite the bleak subject matter. The use of sound is great too. The beeping of the protagonist’s watch serves as an interesting and important motif that is also used to create suspense and emotion.
Overall, Arctic is a solid survival thriller. Although it is pretty straightforward, it is also highly effective due in part to a great performance by Mads Mikkelsen.
Arctic is now playing in select theaters and expands February 22.