Filled with more snow than script, Joe Penna’s Arctic strips the survival film genre to its bare essentials, but bolstering that skeleton with a rich performance from its main character.

Danish Mads Mikkelsen gives his all in his role as Overgard, a pilot stranded in the arctic region after a crash. Presumably. I say that because Arctic is a film full of inference. You don’t see the crash, but you see Overgard staying in a shell of a plane. You know he’s been out there a while because there’s fishing holes rigged up with an inventive alarm made from plane parts. You also know he was not alone because his routine includes cleaning a rock grave nearby. There’s a certain satisfaction to be had, almost like unfolding an origami to see how it was made, as the story opens up its history through these visual cues.

This not only makes Arctic a tour de force piece for the talented Mikkelsen, but also a rare film that doesn’t subject itself to exposition. This admittedly may not sit well with audience grown used to their blockbusters and superhero franchise, but like working out a new set of muscles, it’s a satisfying exercise that has its rewards. Namely, a piece that is very present and believable.

The story takes a turn halfway, when a rescue helicopter who spots Overgard, runs into trouble themselves. It crashes, and Overgard discovers one of the crew still alive. With a severe wound on her (Maria Thelma Smaradottir), our pilot is caught in a bind. Does he venture out to get help, or should he wait for rescue?

A few days pass and the cruel fate becomes apparent. But given Overgard’s skill, we keep our digits crossed for his success as he hauls survival items and the lady to the nearest seasonal station on her map.

This decision steers the film from functionality to ethics, as he makes hard decisions as he struggles to keep themselves alive, battling the harsh cold, treacherous terrain, declining supplies, and even a polar bear. For the viewer, you’ll identify the dilemma at one point or another. Having just returned from Siberia myself, the impact of losing heat from their portable stove was deeply felt, and taking a detour means so much more as well.

But Arctic does strangely feel a little unsatisfying. This may come from the wavering intensity of the motivation, which keeps this title realistic, but it also strings it in limbo. It doesn’t have the drama of a Hollywood plot, but it doesn’t have enough richness in an philosophical way as well. And while Mikkelsen’s acting is at arguably at its finest, there’s an odd lack of urgency that kills the need for emotional investment from our part.

Arctic places a new hand on survival genre titles, opting for visual storytelling and a docu-naturalistic tone, but needs to juice up their characters a little more to propel some emotional traction.

Rating: 3.5*

The natural style is refreshing, and may even challenge certain viewers, but more character motivation may beef up engagement.

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