In his feature-film debut, director Joe Penna assembles all of the elements of a classic survival drama. Mads Mikkelsen plays a man named Overgård. His plane has gone down and he's now stranded in some hellish, remote stretch of the Arctic. Whilst obviously dealt a cruel hand, Overgård is alive and his attitude and industriousness are keeping him alive. He's jerry-rigged some fishing lines, giving him a steady supply of food. Luck has helped too - the downed plane's cabin is intact, providing shelter from the incessant cold and the lurking polar bears.
On the getting rescued front, Overgård's carved out a huge 'SOS' sign out of the snow. He's also made several expeditions into the surrounding hills to try and work out where he is and if there's possible egress. Out on these trips, he takes a transmitter, hoping to find a signal of a rescuer.
And not long into the film, he finds one. It's a helicopter. But triumph soon turns to terror when the chopper crashes, killing one pilot and seriously injuring the other. Overgård assesses the situation and brings the survivor, an unnamed woman (Maria Thelma Smáradóttir), back to his camp. Now he faces a dilemma: the woman needs medical intervention sooner rather than later; staying at his camp surely means she will perish. But a multi-day trek across the glacial tundra, dragging the woman along behind him on a sled, carries with it innumerable risks.
Containing very little dialogue, the performance of Mads Mikkelsen drives Arctic from start to finish. It's a physical performance, his body and face used to convey the peril of his situation. In the opening scenes, we see him move purposely through his daily routine of fishing, eating and trying to seek help. But it's when the helicopter crashes that his world is once again turned upside down and it's here that we see him thinking, plotting, trying to figure a way out.
The cinematography conveys beautifully the wild snowy expanses, often times reducing Overgård to a tiny speck against the awesome landscape. This changes over time, the camera gets closer to Overgård's face as the situation becomes more dire. The score is also minimalist, but works beautifully with the pictures and the added sound effects of the howling winds.
Overgård's quest for salvation is a thrilling and tense thing to see. Arctic reaches the heights of the genre.