Joe Penna
Release Year:
Length (mins):
Joe Penna, Ryan Morrison.
Mads Mikkelsen, Maria Thelma Smáradóttir, Tintrinai Thikhasuk.
Screening Date:
  • 25 Feb 2020
  • Categories:
    Adventure, Drama, Thriller

    A man (Mads Mikkelsen) stranded in the Arctic after a helicopter crash must decide whether to remain in the relative safety of his makeshift camp or to embark on a deadly trek through the unknown.

    Film Notes

    Arctic review: Mads Mikkelsen delivers a super-strength lesson in survival.

    Joe Penna’s Arctic delivers what might be called Max Mads: a sustained and sinew-stiffening hit of the Danish actor, ideal for the Mikkelsen connoisseur.

    This snowbound endurance thriller, screening in the Midnight strand at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, features the star of The Hunt and NBC’s Hannibal at his most primally charismatic in the role of the sole survivor of a light aircraft crash, somewhere north of the 66th parallel.

    Some time has evidently passed since the accident that stranded him there, and without warning or explanation the film drops us into this man’s daily routine: an endless round of checking fishing holes for Arctic trout, scanning radio frequencies and maintaining the huge SOS he has gouged into a plain of ice and basalt. A giant polar paw-print close to camp counts as an existential threat.

    Daylight is constant, so the activities of each day are marked by a pip-pip from his electronic watch. At the end of the day, when he retreats into the shell of his aeroplane and pulls off his footwear, only eight frostbite-blackened toes remain. The countdown is underway to the worst.

    As in Robert Zemeckis’s Cast Away, which dropped off Tom Hanks on a desert island, and JC Chandor’s All Is Lost, which confined Robert Redford to a capsizing yacht, Arctic finds excitement in competence. Mikkelsen’s character, whose name is Overgård, repeatedly staves off danger with his wits and will, rather than tackling it head on: some of the most thrilling moments in the entire film come from watching him take sensible precautions you’d never have thought of yourself.

    But things change when he finds another survivor, a nameless woman (Maria Thelma Smáradóttir) left badly injured and barely conscious in a helicopter crash.

    This discovery confronts Overgård with an unavoidable and thrillingly onerous moral dilemma: should he use the supplies from the helicopter for his own benefit, which might eke out his own life for a little longer – or rescue her, making survival yet more strenuous, but also giving himself something more to live for? The implications of his choice are made vividly clear in the various mettle-testing crises that ensue.

    Arctic is terrifically enjoyable up to a point: its landscapes ring with brutal grandeur (the film was shot in Iceland), and the sense of danger is palpable and established with a sure directorial hand.

    And Mikkelsen really is the ideal leading man for this: with almost no dialogue to work with, he invests Overgård’s struggle with pathos, humour and blizzard-defying resolve, chuckling drily at some miserable irony, and blissfully chomping through a clump of just-discovered dry ramen noodles as if they were a freshly baked pain au beurre.

    Yet as the plot wears on, and the peril ramps up, the two characters’ suffering starts to feel less like a heroic ordeal than a sadistic running joke at their expense, and grim developments that should have drawn gasps give rise to groans, or worse.

    The film’s very last scene, in particular, badly misjudges a pivotal moment in the story that has the effect of making the entire preceding hour and a half of tenacity and strife feel oddly throwaway: you know exactly the effect the film was aiming for, but the timing and framing are unintentionally comic.

    This is Penna’s debut feature, and he has set himself a high bar which he just about scrapes over, with Mikkelsen giving the entire project a super-strength leg up.

     Robbie Collin, the Telegraph, 11th May 2018.

    A tale of survival in the icy wilderness, with Mads Mikkelsen as a crash-landed explorer, dares to cut no corners, and that's why it's compelling.

    “Arctic,” a notably quiet and captivating slow-build adventure film, starring Mads Mikkelsen as a researcher-explorer who has crash-landed in the frozen wilderness, is the latest example of a genre we know in our bones, one that feels so familiar it’s almost comforting. It’s another solo survival movie, one more tale of a shipwrecked pawn that derives its spirit and design from the mythic fable of the form, “Robinson Crusoe.”

    The challenge of watching a stranded man toil away on his own, of course, is that it seems, on the surface, to be inherently undramatic. That’s why nearly every one of these movies has had a buried hook, a way of turning a barren situation into compulsively watchable and suspenseful storytelling. “Robinson Crusoe” (the novel, published in 1719, and its various film versions) set the template by presenting its tale as one of human ingenuity — in essence, it prophesied the Industrial Revolution in the form of a stripped-down one-man show. “Cast Away” had Wilson the soccer ball and Tom Hanks’ plucky enterprise. “127 Hours” had James Franco, as a hiker trapped in a rocky wedge, nattering into his video camera. “All Is Lost,” set on a sailboat adrift at sea, had Robert Redford’s finely aging regret and his character’s technical instincts. “Robinson Crusoe” had Friday.

    he hook of “Arctic,” which was shot in Iceland, is that it has none of those things. It’s the first feature directed by Joe Penna, the protean Brazilian video auteur who became a sensation on YouTube, so you might expect it to be made with a touch of 21st-century flash. On the contrary: Penna tells this tale of self-rescue with a plainly carpentered austerity that makes it feel, at times, like you’re seeing an ice-cap remake of “A Man Escaped.” There are no cut corners, no overly blatant only-in-the-movies gambits. Mikkelsen’s stranded pilot has little to rely on beyond his will, so we feel at every step that he could truly be us.

    The result is that it takes a bit of time for “Arctic” to get rolling. It opens not with a bang but with an eerie plunge into the anti-dramatic post-crash void: Here is Mikkelsen’s lone survivor (he is never named), in his dirty insulated jacket, scratching at the black ground beneath the snow, the camera revealing that he has etched the giant letters “SOS” into the white tundra. The landscape is mostly flat, but in the distance are streaked gray mountains, and all we need to know about his predicament is explained by a small orange-and-white plane, of no marked nationality, that sits nearby, with one of its wings snapped in half. (He eats, sleeps, and takes storm refuge in the body of the plane.)

    The erecting-civilization-from-the-ground-up ingenuity, what there is of it, has already happened. Mikkelsen has rigged up a fishing line that pokes into a hole in the ice, and whenever a fish bites, it sends a signal by clanking a piece of metal attached to the line. Mikkelsen keeps the caught fish carefully stacked in a frozen locker, and each day he removes one and slices it open, scraping out a meal of sushi. There’s a brief shot of a piece of paper on which he ticks off the days; it indicates that he’s been there for about two months. (That would match the length of his beard.) At one point he sees a giant paw print in the snow, then catches a glimpse of the polar bear who made it, from a great distance.

    Penna works in what you might call a gratifyingly prosaic style. He doesn’t wow you (though the film, in its level way, is elegantly shot). But he doesn’t cheat you, either, so you come to trust the gravity of his nuts-and-bolts storytelling. The movie is built around the gruff mystique of Mads Mikkelsen, who never betrays a hint of showiness. Mikkelsen’s height and stalwart presence fill the frame, and his face looks inward and outward at the same time; it’s tense, focused, ravaged, not afraid to be a little blank. He speaks just a few words (of English), yet his rapt desperation consumes the viewer. At one point he has to pull a heavy load up an unexpected rocky hill, and he can’t do it; the character isn’t strong enough. The polar bear shows up again, this time at closer range, and watching this superb scene I realized how much I’ve come to expect the hidden reassurance of digital imagery. If this polar bear is digital, it certainly fooled me.

    Okay, there is one hook — sort of. But as these things go, it’s notably minimalist. It would be hard to write a review and not mention it, but it’s a bit of a spoiler, so here goes: A helicopter appears in the distance, but it battles the same icy wind that Mikkelsen’s plane presumably did. The chopper crash-lands, leaving a survivor (played by the Icelandic actress Maria Thelma Smáradôttir). She is out cold, with a serious gash in her side. Mikkelsen staples the wound shut, and she remains, for more or less the entire film, in a state of mute semi-consciousness. She never becomes his “companion,” but her very existence teaches him something about existence.

    Five years ago, “All Is Lost” premiered at Cannes to deserved acclaim. But when it opened later that fall, the film was a noteworthy commercial disappointment (it made just $6 million domestic), and the awards magic never happened for Robert Redford. I think I understood why. “All Is Lost” was ingeniously made, and a true experience, yet the stark fact is that it was slow. “Arctic,” as effective as it is, may face a similar challenge (at least in the U.S.), precisely because of the rough-hewn, trudging-through-the-tundra, one-step-at-a-time honesty with which Joe Penna works. The movie, in its indie way, is the anti-“Cast Away.” Yet that’s what’s good and, finally, moving about it. It lets survival look like the raw experience it is.

    OWEN GLEIBERMAN, Variety, May 11th 2018. 


    What you thought about Arctic

    Film Responses

    Excellent Good Average Poor Very Poor
    27 (56%) 13 (27%) 8 (17%) 0 (0%) 0 (0%)
    Total Number of Responses: 48
    Film Score (0-5): 4.40

    Collated Response Comments

    118 members and guests attended this screening with 48 providing a comment delivering a response rate of 41%.

    “Quietly compelling, and (largely) credible with some subtle emotional heft. And unlike the Telegraph reviewer I really liked the ambiguous ending - optimist or pessimist/realist, we get to choose their fate!”

    “As I struggled to get the coffee machine to work this morning I thought of this film and how so many of our daily travails are so trivial in the context of what others have to bear! Mads M was excellent and his part's patient and practical approach to survival were inspiring. Apart from jumping out of my skin twice the film was a slow journey, but needed to be to convey his struggle to survive. Thanks”.

    “Well, having broken my leg, I'm not missing my ski trip so much having watched this. Comparable to '1917' in terms of the relentless focus on Mikkelsen's increasingly desperate plight. As always with these things; 'Touching the void', etc., there's a point where one ponders; 'At what point would I have given up?'. The beginning, where his situation is revealed as he calmly goes about his chores, is particularly effective. Sufficiently convincing that one assumes it is based on a true story. Grim, gritty, salutary stuff”.

    “Uninspiring.  Would have been better without the last 10 seconds”.  “Definitely an arm gripper! Very enjoyable film, elicited a couple of gasps from the audience, and a round of applause at the end. Top marks”. “Good trudging film. Lucky to be saved. Always STAY WITH THE PLANE!! Great script”. “Riveting”. “Gripping film/kept you on the edge of your seat until the end”.

    “OMG this was so tense. Not sure about the very end – I felt it was a bit of a let-down given the realism of the rest of the film”. “Engaging”. “Predictably slow but a tense tale of human endeavour - more enjoyable than I initially expected”. “A graphic piece of storytelling without words. Gripping, tense. We felt his agony and despair”.

    “Mr Grumpy says “bloody brilliant – more like this please”. “Superb – moving. Totally gripping”. “Gripping”. “I nearly couldn’t “bear” it”. “Although good, a film about endurance was too much of an endurance”. “Gripping – fantastic photography”. “Determined, resilient and resourceful”. ”Gripped to the very end. Fantastic cinematography!” “Excellent film Tense and gripping”. “Quite an engaging story, but full of errors such as: he would have been snow blind without snow goggles, too many scenes with no hat, would have got frost bite on his nose – and where did those mountains come from - not in the Arctic! He should have belayed the rope with the ice axe when pulling the sled up. A bit disappointing therefore”. 

    “A film of endurance, overcoming the bears (literal and metaphorical) along the road, until virtue is eventually rewarded, is something of a cliché. Well enough done, with peaks of excitement interspersed with interludes of boredom”.

    “Slow Artic it was – but tense and gripping too”. “Didn’t feel it deserved the “mirth” at the end - or did it?” “Very well told”. “Excellent photography and acting. Very tense and agonising”. “Lovely film. Riveting”. “Fantastic – kept me on the edge of my seat. The final 30 seconds were tense”.

    “Riveting film! It affirms ones faith in the perseverance and determination of mankind – (or the best parts of it!)” “Gripping story of endurance and great acting – cool man cool”. “Great film and also nice not to have sub titles to read”. “Gruelling and mesmerising”. “Too tense to even notice the filmography! Not a relaxing evening”.

    “Extremely good. A real feat – on the part of the protagonist and the film makers”. “Riveting”. “A story using cinema. A film picture book. Original”. “Well, what can I say? Not a lot of dialogue! I think the title “Endurance” might have been more apt. Surprised he didn’t make sure she was really dead!” “Great film. Hard to watch at times”.

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