Arctic ***

Mads Mikkelsen’s strong performance and the no frills story make this a struggle for survival that’s worth seeing. 

Is it worth $10? Yes 

Ordinarily, a movie about a pilot who survives a plane crash would show the pilot in flight, with things going well. He’s smiling, confident. It’s business as usual. Then, catastrophe! The plane malfunctions and a dramatic action scene ensues, in which he barely survives. A new reality emerges, one of desperation and despair with little hope of returning to loved ones. Will he have the fortitude to fight, struggle and endure the hardship?

Aside from the desperation, “Arctic,” curiously, has none of the above elements. No pilot in flight. No plane crash. No family back story. We know nothing about the pilot, Overgard (Mads Mikkelsen), except for what we observe. Stranded in the frozen tundra of the Arctic, we see him resourcefully ice fish for food, try to communicate with what looks like an analog radio, and use his crashed plane for shelter. He’s clearly been there for some time, but how long we do not know. He’s okay on his own, but with little hope of rescue, the weather not getting warmer and the constant threat of polar bears, this isn’t much of a life.

One naturally wonders what drives him to survive. A quarter of the way in to the 98-minute movie, co-writer and director Joe Penna provides motivation: A helicopter crash-lands nearby, and a young woman (Maria Thelma Smaradottir) is the only survivor. Keeping her alive helps keep him alive, though at times she’s certainly a burden. With her health failing, a question soon presents itself: Are they better off staying where they are, or taking a dangerous trek to an outpost miles away?

The film was shot in 20 days on top of a glacier in Iceland, and my goodness does it look cold. The gleaming white snow-covered mountains emphasize both the frostiness of the temperature and the isolation the characters must feel, especially in wide shots that show the vast terrain. It’s beautiful to watch, and smart filmmaking. The musical score, though at times obtrusive, sets the melancholic tone, insistently reflecting Overgard’s state of being. Less would have been more here, but Mikkelsen’s strong performance makes up for that shortcoming.

“Arctic” is thematically similar to “All Is Lost,” the 2013 Robert Redford film in which his boat takes on water in the Indian Ocean. The Redford film was effective at showing resourcefulness, intelligence and good ole’ fashioned “know-how” aiding his survival, all with the hope of rescue forefront on the mind. “Arctic” takes place in a vastly different setting, but succeeds for similar reasons. The PG-13 rating ensures there will not be scenes of excess blood or gangrene; this allows the viewer to focus on Overgard’s fight to survive, which always stays within the realm of plausibility. The movie isn’t an easy watch, but it is impressive on all counts.

Did you know?
Mikkelsen is well known to American audiences: He played the villain Le Chiffre in “Casino Royale,” Hannibal Lecter in the “Hannibal” TV series, and appeared in “Doctor Strange” and “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.”