“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 soul 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.
The 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.