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I love a good survival film. I don’t really know what it is about them, even though they’re all quite similar, I still enjoy every last one – The Grey, All is Lost, Gravity, Styx, Buried, The Martian, Life of Pi, 127 Hours, The Revenant, Tracks, Cast Away, The Way Back, Kon-Tiki. The latest survival thriller offering which just premiered at the Cannes Film Festival is a film titled Arctic, about a man trying to survive all by himself in the freezing, cold, snowy arctic. Produced in Iceland and filmed in Iceland, the film is the feature directorial debut of Brazilian filmmaker Joe Penna, and features some very real survival tactics. It also has all of the usual survival film tropes: just when you think everything is fine, something else goes wrong. There’s always some animal that makes things worse (in this one, it’s a polar bear). Rescuers never see them when nearby.
Despite these familiar survival aspects, Arctic is an excellent and riveting film. It’s not very easy to make a survival film with minimal dialogue in the harsh wildness and actually make it captivating enough to keep your attention from start to finish. It’s also not easy to make a survival film that is entirely believable and realistic. But this film pulls that off, it had me all the way through. Part of this is thanks to the impeccable performance by Mads Mikkelsen, who plays a pilot stuck in the barren wilderness of the Arctic. They skip showing us the crash or how he even got there, and it starts with giving us a look at his daily survival routine – catching fish, using a hand-crank generator to power an emergency beacon for a few hours, collecting & managing supplies – all kept in sync by a watch that beeps every few hours to keep him on track every day.
I’m not exactly sure what most people are expecting when they watch a survival film, because it’s unlikely to be totally different or completely unexpected (it’s about surviving, right?). We all know they’re going to be rescued at the end, I don’t think any survival film ends with that not happening, it would just be depressing. And we all know they’re going to keep running intro troubles along the way. I know all this, and I still fully enjoy the experience. What it comes down to are the particulars of the filmmaking – the cinematography, the performance(s), the reality, the brutality, the pacing. With Arctic, it’s consistently impressive throughout – everything he does to survive, his grueling and painful (to watch) performance, every snowy shot. I adore the heart-wrenching, lovely score by Joseph Trapanese, one of the best scores I’ve heard so far this year.
What is it about survival thrillers that always entrances me? At the surface, it’s the man vs nature theme – the great struggle to survive against all odds, in environments which do not want to let man survive. But it’s more than that, it’s the desire to live, to remain alive, to push on when all you want to do is give up and die. You can feel this intensity, these brutal emotions deep down inside Mikkelsen. That’s what intrigues me the most, watching these people and wondering if I could have the willpower and determination to survive if I was there, too. At some point watching Arctic, I thought of the moment near the end of Lord of the Rings: Return of the King (one of my all-time favorites). When Sam and Frodo are climbing up Mount Doom, and Frodo falls down, ready to give up – Sam grabs him and says: “I can’t carry it for you, but I can carry you.”
Alex’s Cannes 2018 Rating: 9 out of 10
Follow Alex on Twitter – @firstshowing
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