The survival film, while not entirely visually equivalent, shares a lot of the same DNA as a typical slasher film.
The survival genre could even be categorized as a part of the horror family, as many films are fueled from the tension generated from begin within the proximity of death.
Both genres heavily focus on the environment as a source of tension. Yet, while horror films focus on what’s on around the corner, survival films focus on the corner itself. In a survival film, the environment, the enemy, is always visible. As such, these films often rely on a slow burn of tension, but easily this slow pacing can easily bore the viewer.
Fortunately, Arctic is a refreshing, small scale refusal to the survival blueprint. Directed by Joe Penna (well known on YouTube as MysteryGuitarMan) in his feature length debut and starring Mads Mikkelsen, Arctic manages to make a compelling 90 minutes out of its one sentence premise.
Arctic’s plot is minimal, reducing the survival story into its prime elements. The film starts with Mikkelsen having been stranded somewhere in the Arctic Circle for some time. He spends the majority of his day shoveling snow, broadcasting an emergency signal and checking his fishing lines. One day his distress signal is answered, but the rescue attempt fails, leading Mikkelsen to embark on a dangerous trek which may lead to rescue.
An admirable quality of Arctic is how present and confident it is. Penna, who co-wrote the film with Ryan Morrison, offers few answers to the obvious questions raised in the film’s story. There are hints, but no clear depiction of the incident which stranded Mikkelsen, nor is there any struggle in learning how to survive. There are no flashbacks to his loving partner at home who he is eagerly awaiting to get home to. The minimal plot is a refreshing change of pace to the numerous overwrought and overexposed ‘memory’ scenes which involve a woman slightly out of focus telling the protagonist to ‘just come home.’
With its setting and minimalism, a film like this could be visually dull, but cinematographer Tómas Örn Tómasson manages to create compelling frames from the endless snow dunes. Unfortunately, the minimal approach wasn’t applied to the soundtrack which is frustratingly obvious, tipping off significant story beats before they even occur.
Due to the minimal nature of the plot, there is little to no dialogue in the film, which places Mikkelsen into a difficult acting challenge. On top of this, the survival genre relies heavily on its protagonist in order to build stakes, audiences must care about the central character for tension to be established. To his credit, Mikkelsen rises to the occasion and communicates a great deal of his character through his physical movements. Mikkelsen manages to imbue his screen presence with a mixture of tiredness, resignation and loneliness without being obvious or outlandish.
While it doesn’t reinvent or transcend the genre, Arctic offers viewers a tight, thrilling adventure which features a strong performance from one of the best actors working today.
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