English singer/writer David Gray released a very evocative song in 2014 called “Birds of the High Arctic.” The verse is about a lost lover and the poignant refrain says: They’re calling. Like the birds of the high Arctic. “This darling. For the light in your eyes sparked it. Two sheets to the wind.” In just a few words and with a pleading voice Gray conjures visions of the cold barren Arctic that are indelible and haunting.
First-time filmmaker Joe Penna is a musician who created the internationally popular YouTube channel, MysteryGuitarMan. The channel became a viral sensation and he amassed two million followers. He’s shot commercials (Coca Cola and McDonald’s) and short films (“Turning Point”). Arcticpulls his skills into the feature-film format where he demonstrates the basic mechanics of filmmaking but not the artistry. Nothing sticks with you, nothing is visually stunning or memorable.
Overgård (Mads Mikkelsen, “The Hunt,” “Casino Royale”) is stranded in the Arctic. His only shelter is what’s left of his plane, which crashed into the icy, barren wilderness. To add a grain of sanity to his endless days and nights, he keeps a routine. According to periodic alarms on his watch, he gets up, fishes, works on a rescue sign and looks for a radio signal. He confronts the freezing elements and the occasional stare of a polar bear. It’s a lonely, melancholic existence that won’t change unless there is a new stimulus. That spark comes after a rescue helicopter crashes, leaving another survivor (Maria Thelma Smáradóttir, “Prisoners”). Now Overgård is fighting the elements and making life-saving choices for two.
Penna and co-writer Ryan Morrison have given this bone-chilling adventure a very simple premise: Man against nature, man against himself. You don’t see the plane crash. There is no backstory. You don’t know how the central character got himself into such a bleak situation, or why he has superior survival skills and can fix electronics. The writers and director don’t let viewers put the protagonist’s dilemma into perspective, and that’s a gutsy or foolhardy choice, depending. Still, the set-up and location are so unique that many will go along on this improbable excursion, regardless.
Penna’s direction is adequate. No major mistakes. No fits of genius. Cinematographer Tómas Örn Tómasson (“Pacific Rim: Uprising”) has missed an opportunity to make the wintry scenes look gorgeous or ghostly. Instead, it’s as if he shot the unexciting footage on a smartphone. Ryan Morrison’s editing manages a solid tempo for 97 minutes. Joseph Trapanese (“Straight Outta Compton”) creates a musical score that stays in the background and never intrudes. The tech aspects are neither a credit or a hindrance.
With a cast of just two actors and virtually no dialogue, the weight of the film rests on veteran Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen. Most of the time he has no one to talk to. It’s just him, pulling the story forward and making his emotions (fear, anger, courage, indecision, regret) the central focus. Facial expressions, his walk and other non-verbal communications give his character depth. There are many instances that require Overgård to make monumental choices and live with the consequences. You can see the gravity of those decisions in Mikkelsen’s eyes.
The film doesn’t display a brutal, raw realism that blows your mind. The finale is fitting, not a shocker that will make your heart race (“The Vanishing,” 1988). The climax is not an escape from a deadly situation, although there are a few of those. Instead, the most dramatic, stomach-turning scene is when the protagonist must come to terms with the karma he faces for putting his needs first. This is the “aha” moment when the thin screenplay finds another dimension and Penna proves he’s more than just a trendy YouTube video entrepreneur.
“Arctic” has a very similar feel to the James Franco film “127 Hours,” where a hiker gets himself stuck in between two boulders and resorts to cutting off part of his arm to escape. The hubris in that character made it a challenge to empathize with his dilemma. Overgård is humble and likable throughout.
There isn’t anything gross or repugnant about what’s on view, like in the disaster movie “Alive,” when a Uruguayan rugby team ate each other to stay alive. Audiences looking for a basic survival film will likely be satiated. Penna’s simple storytelling and perfunctory direction are tolerable and Mikkelsen’s stirring performance brings what’s on view up a notch.
“Arctic” doesn’t have a long-lasting impact. Without artistry and an indelible atmospheric impression, it’s just another film you’ll vaguely remember. What’s missing is the kind of haunting feeling sensitive artists like David Gray can conjure.