“Arctic”: An Exquisitely Excruciating Survival of the Fittest Story

By: Daniel Volfson

“Arctic” invests all its energy in piling up excruciating tests of survival until they reach an almost unbearable pitch. Its goal is to make us derive a perverse pleasure from seeing an anonymous stranded man squirm and suffer as he just-barely overcomes a myriad of fatal obstacles over and over again. A subsidiary goal is to make us feel in awe of the sheer will-power that is unleashed when man is confronted with the abrupt possibility of death. It’s a movie that gains its power from continually pressuring our most primordial fears and existential impasses (the movie isn’t of an existential nature; the existential-conflict is an inadvertent side-effect of the former). It’s supposed to take us on a sensationalistic thrill-ride of a thought experiment, and save for a few lulls, it succeeds.

It’s hard to envision a gripping narrative that focuses solely on a man contending with the cruelly indifferent forces of nature. The movie is made more sustainable when our lone survivor stumbles upon a helicopter that crashes before his very eyes. Here he finds a woman whose blood-flow is just strong enough to be life-sustainable. His unspoken bond with the woman is what gives him the vigor and tenacity to stagger from one harrowing day to the next. It also adds a sort of purity and integrity to his plight, and it gives him a reason to live beyond mere brute survival of the fittest. In the boundless frigid desserts that encroach upon him at every second of his existence, empathy and spirituality become drivers that are as, if not more, powerful than his basic urges for bodily homeostasis. The movie never meditates on these themes, but you find yourself instinctively meditating on them throughout the movie, but more to tease yourself than to seriously introspect.

After the first hour, the pace and pressure begin to slacken. This puts you in danger of being lulled to sleep by the soothing howling winds and the crackling snowy landscapes. But the moment you begin to feel your eyelids flutter, the film regains its propulsion with another series of challenges of herculean proportions. In the hands of another director, we might have tired of seeing the same man-versus-nature brawl repeat itself in many different varieties and variations, but the director of this film makes them feel tension-fraught and fresh every time. It’s impossible for me to imagine an actor more suitable for the role than Mads Mikkelsen, who embodies his persona with a perfect measure of desperation, relentless endurance, and inner strength.

Besides the movie’s superb acting talent, its atmospheric and tonal composition, and its firm handle on tactfully exerting pressure, there’s not much else to talk about. It’s a well-made and competent movie that has no traces of anything unique or innovative, which ensures that after it has run its lifespan in theaters, it’s guaranteed to be permanently forgotten. The movie itself is really only a one-time experience because its effects are bound to lose their shock-value after the first viewing.

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