When a director decides to venture into a well-worn genre, comparisons to far superior films are inevitable. And so, a film like Joe Penna‘s feature-length directorial debut, “Arctic,” a survival drama, 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.” The correlation potentially weakens the film, but like all great art, if imitation can transcend or even equal its inspirations, then all the better.
Yet, despite its ambitions and risk-taking demeanor, the spartan and sometimes daring “Arctic” isn’t a refreshing watch. Penna summons the talent of Mads Mikkelsen and brings his camera to Antarctica for a lonely, survive-against-the-odds narrative that tries to differentiate itself, but just can’t break through the conventional tropes set forth by its more successful forebears. 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 skills: he transforms the plane into a warm shelter, and he concocts devices to catch fish from what is left of the plane wreckage. He’s even found a way to radio for help through a handy transmitter. However, when the rescue does finally show up though, nothing goes as planned. A turbulent snowstorm causes another plane crash with the only survivor a young woman who goes in and out of consciousness. From there, Overgård decides to head further north on a harrowing journey to reach a rescue station. Carrying the woman’s body on a sled, Overgård’s heavily-charged trek is a daunting one. Despite the beautiful natural scenery, the wintry mountains are savagely precarious and one misstep can spell doom.
Penna’s decision to cast Mikkelsen is brilliant, however. The 52-year-old actor’s already proven his ability to emote in silence (see Nicolas Winding Refn‘s “Valhalla Rising“) and still oozes charisma in film barren of dialogue. Penna’s slow-moving work is a decidedly non-mainstream affair favoring minimalism and a bare-bones approach
However, the austerity is at least juxtaposed and amped up with a score by Joseph Trapanese (“The Raid,” “Oblivion,” “The Greatest Showman“), whose music is memorable but never overused for emphasis. However, “Arctic” barely registers as a standout of the genre because Penna constantly strains the picture to make the starkness the main draw. “All is Lost” and “127 Hours” were artfully conceived exercises of thoughtful mise-en-scene, but Penna just doesn’t pull it off. “Arctic” has none of the transcendence that was achieved in the aforementioned movies. It doesn’t help that the young woman Mikkelsen drags along for the ride, recovering from her debilitating injury, feels like a pointless appendage; she barely registers a word throughout.
Nevertheless, Penna must be given points for refusing to cheat the viewer and for taking risks of naked starkness 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 determined man 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 the last act where things finally come together and any kind of visceral thrills arrive far too late. Even Mikkelson’s on-screen talents can’t save an admirable yet stagnant film in dire need of a heartbeat. [C+]