Let me get straight to the point. Arctic is pure and unadulterated Mads Mikkelsen po**. That’s not a statement meant to demean the story and some of its deeper underlying thematics, or Mr. Mikkelsen’s superb acting skills for that matter, but more on that later.
Firstly, godda**, those interested in experiencing Denmark’s own 2018 and 2019 sexiest man alive grunting, puffing, huffing and effortlessly straddling a wide spectrum of laborious facial expressions (mostly in intimate close-ups), then this is unequivocally your movie. One can easily imagine a 15-minute version of Mads, the pizza delivery boy: good evening ma’am, your extra spicy pizza order is here.
But enough about that. Akin to The Matrix offering a little bit of something for everyone — cutting-edge action scenes and/or intellectual/biblical/literary underpinnings, Arctic is layered, exposing its audience on the one hand to raw nature, endless sheets of white ice, frostbite, polar bears, crashing helicopters and all sorts of Bear Grylls survival lessons (I can’t wait to get caught in a snowstorm now), while on the other offering existential lessons in humanity.
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In essence, Arctic deals with a person (we never do learn his name) going through an expiating inner experience. Survival through mechanical dehumanization, from the very onset of the movie, is the name of the game. A pure survival outlook is compromised, however, when another human being literally crashes into our main protagonist’s battery-saving mode life. It is during the moments where the main protagonist cares for the wounded rescue survivor that the movie is at its best.
The notion that the endless sheets of ice could ultimately not hamper the thawing of indomitable quintessential human qualities such as empathy and the altruistic urge to take care of one another is brilliantly visualized in fleeting fragile scenes; a stolen hug, a retrieved personal item from the crash site.
In that sense Arctic’s underlying themes run deeper than The Revenant, a movie similar in its portrayal of a raw and awe-inspiring mother nature, not in the least bothered by mundane concepts such as human survival (one could almost call this refreshing when espied against the current state of affairs vis-a-vis human induced climate change). Unlike The Revenant, however, the well-tested cinematic formula of human vs. nature is merely the overarching framework in Arctic. Narrative depth is gently infused and visualized through a myriad of scenes espousing the main protagonist’s inner struggle to define, be, and remain human.
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The dramatic tension of this inner struggle boils down to a choice of either keeping a sense of humanity by virtue of simply staying alive, versus defining his humanity in terms of living by and accepting death due to qualities such as empathy and altruism. It is this struggle that propels the second half of the movie forward, with more accessible options for a (solitary) escape from the frozen wilderness quelled by the desire to get his unconscious companion to safety. The concluding scene settles this struggle definitively, with our main protagonist enacting an ultimate selfless deed for the sake of his companion.
Arctic will not be a cinematic classic to withstand the test of time, there are issues with pacing and overall it does not bring enough innovation to the survival genre. It does, however, strike a chord on an existential level, and Arctic offers lessons beyond the cinematic world; one only has to read current news reports about climbers stepping over dead or dying people in order to summit Mount Everest (not for survival or rescue but for glory). As such, Artic is indeed a fresh breath of icy air.
But if none of the above applies, enjoy your extra spicy pizza delivered by Mads.
By Sander vanNiekerk
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