‘Arctic’ entertains but feels empty

Survival story is as spare as its wilderness setting

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Joe Penna’s directorial debut, “Arctic,” is as starkly minimalist as the Icelandic landscape it uses as its backdrop, delivering a tense little thriller that could have stood to be trimmed by 10 minutes, or else beefed up with a touch more character background.

Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen (TV’s Hannibal Lecter) plays a pilot who’s crash-landed in the Arctic Circle and is named “Overgaard,” but for the purposes of the film, his character might as well be named “Mads Mikkelsen.”

We’re introduced to him through his diligent, silent routine of ice fishing, trying to make radio contact with possible search-and-rescue personnel, and carving out a large “SOS” to be seen by aircraft passing overhead, with each step in his daily routine signaled by the tinny electric beeps of his watch.

Amazingly, his discovery by a helicopter crew causes his fate to take what initially seems to be a turn for the worse, when the helicopter crashes as well, and the sole survivor (María Thelma Smáradóttir, whose character is never named) requires his constant care, all while he confirms a polar bear has been nosing around the edge of his camp.

The silver lining is that the food and equipment in the downed helicopter has supplemented his own supplies enough that he has a semi-credible hope of surviving a trek across the tundra, on foot, while pulling the woman in a makeshift sled behind him.

Aside from a photo of the survivor with her husband and child, which Overgaard retrieves from the helicopter, we never learn anything about who these characters are, or even why they were flying in the Arctic. Even the likely possibility the helicopter survivor was responding to Overgaard’s radio signals is never confirmed.

On the one hand, I’m not sure knowing more about them would have improved the film, because Penna, who co-wrote the script, doesn’t seem to care about anything other than making his audience care about whether these two characters survive. For the most part, he accomplishes this feat rather effectively.

The expansive on-location shots of Iceland show how isolated and tiny these two wounded people are, compared to the vast, snow-covered mountainous wilderness that threatens to swallow them whole — quite literally, given the frequency of its nightly snowstorms.

Likewise, while all of the dialogue from this film could probably be transcribed on a cocktail napkin, Mikkelsen’s performance makes us feel Overgaard’s struggles. He fends off a polar bear and the frostbite that’s already claimed two of his toes, and he winds up adding several days to his hike because his planned path can’t accommodate his barely conscious companion’s sled.

The biggest problem with this minimalist approach, though, is that the story’s conclusion necessarily feels truncated, because any catharsis depends on seeing who these people were, outside of their attempts to make it home.

As much as I respect the discipline that Mikkelsen and Penna applied to making this film, it’s spare enough in content that even its 97-minute running time feels a bit too long.

Without a few additional insights on the characters, Penna probably could have trimmed this to just over 80 minutes and actually created a much more nerve-wracking film.

Still, “Arctic” is well-made and entertaining, even if you might forget it the next day.

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