Cannes Review: "Arctic"

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When a director decides to tackle a genre that has been dealt with many times before, comparisons to far superior films are inevitable. And so, a film like Joe Penna's "Arctic" will no doubt run the risk of being compared to its spiritual predecessors Danny Boyle's "127 Hours," J.C. Chandor's "All is Lost" and Joe Carnahan's "The Grey." That in itself already weakens it, but like all great art, if imitation can transcend or even equal its inspirations then all the better for it.

Despite its ambitions, and risk-taking demeanor, the minimalist and sometimes daring "Arctic" is just not that refreshing to watch. Penna summons the talent of Mads Mikkelsen and brings his camera to Antarctica for a survival movie that tries to be different but just can't break through the conventional tropes set forth by its more successful predecessors. A midnight selection at this year's Cannes Film Festival, this 90 minute film takes risks that sadly just don't pay off.

Mikkelson plays Overgård, a man whose plane has crashed, leaving him stuck in the wintry landscape of Antarctica, where the extreme conditions could lead to death if help doesn't come soon enough. Overgård clearly has solid survival techniques: he transforms the plane into a warm shelter, and he's concocted devices to catch fish from what is left of the plane wreckage. He's even found a way to contact for rescue through a handy transmitter. When help does finally show up though, it doesn't go as planned. The rescue plane crashes due to a turbulent snowstorm, with the only survivor a young woman who consistently goes in and out of consciousness. From there, Overgård decides to head further north on a harrowing journey to reach a help station. He carries the woman's body on a sled, which makes for a daunting and heavily-charged trek. Despite the beautiful natural scenery, the wintry mountains are savagely dangerous and can whisk you down with a single mishandled step.

Penna's brilliant decision to cast Mikkelsen does pay off, however. The 52-year-old actor has charisma to spare in a film filled with barely any dialogue. The fact that the director also uses a minimalist, non-Hollywood approach renders his film into a very non-mainstream affair. The pacing is slow, as the attempt here is for a survival film that just shows the bare bones on-screen.

The minimalism is amped up with a score by Joseph Trapanese (The Raid, Oblivion, The Greatest Showman), whose music is never overused to emphasize Overgård's achievements and defeats in the face of death. However, "Arctic" barely registers as a standout of the genre because Penna constantly wrestles in trying to make the minimalism interesting. If "All is Lost" and "127 Hours" were artfully conceived exercises where the directors thought of every aspect of the mise-en-scene, Penna just isn't talented enough to pull it off. "Arctic" has none of the transcendence that was achieved in the aforementioned movies. It doesn't help that the young woman our main protagonist has to drag along for the ride is recovering from a debilitating injury and barely registers a word throughout.

Nevertheless, Penna must be given points for refusing to cheat the viewer and for taking risks that most filmmakers would be too scared to take. He tries to sidestep clichés at every turn. There are no flashbacks, no flashy stunts, no love story, and the sight and scare of a bear never reveals the predator to be anything but a one-time ordeal. Mikkelson's character isn't depicted in any kind of heroic fashion, he's just a simple guy trying to survive.

"Arctic" is Penna's first attempt at feature filmmaking, and there are moments of inspiration that do show a potential future in the field. The simplicity of the film is commendable, but it's only in its last third that things finally come together and any kind of visceral thrill and involvement appears, but by then it's too little too late as even Mikkelson's on-screen talents can't save a stagnant film in dire need of a heartbeat.