Arctic’s 97 minutes seem to stretch into weeks, apropos of a film that brazenly eschews the fundamentals of Screenwriting 101.
Arctic marks the latest iteration of a timeless tale that goes back to Robinson Crusoe, if not The Odyssey. Man is pitted against nature in a fight for survival, a relentless struggle against the elements, whose ultimate outcome is a singular goal: home. Director Joe Penna, who co-wrote the screenplay with Ryan Morrison, has created a stark, almost punishing, entry in the genre. At first blush, it’s difficult to determine if its bold creative decisions are worthy of praise or scorn. Arctic’s 97 minutes seem to stretch into weeks, apropos of a film that brazenly eschews the fundamentals of Screenwriting 101.
Arctic is the story, a term used loosely here, about a man (Mads Mikkelsen) stranded in the faceless tundra. We join him in media res, after a plane crash, which we don’t witness. We find him knee-deep in snow amid his daily routine of fishing under ice, carving an SOS sign into the landscape and calling for rescue with a hand-cranked mechanism.
A helicopter emerges a third of the way into the film, a potential savior for our stranded protagonist. Only the most credulous viewer would think the copter is anything but too good to be true. We know all the tropes by now. And so, the rescue vehicle—in a huge twist!—crashes during bad weather, and so our man’s burden is doubled. He’s now also responsible for its incapacitated, sole survivor (Maria Thelma Smáradóttir).
For those of us who are fans of dialogue, the appearance of a second character would normally be a cause for celebration. Alas, no. The spoken word isn’t part of the plan here. Besides the hero’s mutterings to himself and, later, his unconscious partner, Arctic is essentially a silent film. To its credit, this is nevertheless an engrossing work. Though the film can be puzzling at times, it’s certainly not boring. Had it ended differently (I won’t reveal the big payoff, but I suspect you can guess it), this would be an example of cinematic nihilism, rather than a last-second triumphalist endeavor.
The fundamental problem with Arctic is its lack of characterization or narrative context, a conscious decision on the part of its creators. The film exists within an established lineage that includes, most recently, Cast Away and 127 Hours. Those films fully establish their trapped heroes. They employ narrative devices (like flashbacks and monologues) to provide context and, by doing so, force us to care about their characters’ plight. No such luck with Arctic. Our main man is no doubt good, if not saintly, but he’s just a cog in this machine, a cipher whom we root for because we don’t want a nice guy to succumb to hypothermia or the maw of a polar bear. Our eyes may feast on gorgeous, frozen vistas, but there’s little here to sate the heart and mind. They’re left frustrated and hungry.