Movie Review: Mads M. seeks survival in the “Arctic”

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The title and genre will plant, in your mind, most of the obstacles, pitfalls and crises facing Mads Mikkelsen’s hero in “Arctic.”

It’s a tale of survival and it’s set way up north.

So yes, polar bears, frostbite, etc. are all on the menu of this intimate, minimalist account of surviving a polar plane crash.

But the limpid, expressive eyes of Mikkelsen, summoning all the sadness and soulfulness he can manage, lift this conventional narrative and make its almost dialogue-free presentation eyes-averting harrowing and downright moving.

He plays a pilot, Overgard, whose small cargo plane has crashed beyond the reach of civilization.

We don’t know how long he’s been there, because when we meet him, he’s well into a survival routine. He’s set up trot lines for fishing through the ice, has his watch set for daily treks to high ground to hand-crank the generator that runs his locator beacon.

We see he is methodical, able to improvise, “working the problem” as “The Martian” would put it.

And it may be futile, but he laboriously picks away at the snow, carving and maintainimg a vast SOS he’s written on cleared lava field landscape. Anything he can do to be pro-active is better than huddling in the wrecked plane waiting to die.

First time feature director Joe Penna lets Mikkelsen’s Overgard tell us his story and being in this predicament without flashbacks or inane “Cast Away” narration or “Martian” chatter. There was a co-pilot. He’s buried under a cairn on a hillside.

“Arctic” has just settled us into his routine when we and Overgard get our first taste of hope. Rescue! Or at least a helicopter that’s heard his beacon.

We and he barely have time to process this, with desperate igniting of flare in a coming blizzard, when the chopper crashes in the storm. Another body to bury, and now he has an injured would-be rescuer (Maria Thelma Smáradóttir) to save with a little field surgery, try and communicate with and take responsibility for as his situation, and now hers, grows more dire.

The plot, scripted by Penna and Ryan Morrison, has a predictability you can set your watch by.

But the way he lets the camera linger over Mikkelsen’s consideration of the fish he must kill to stay alive, the fresh problem that a wandering bear creates, the opportunities and responsibilities that the near rescue provides, turns this into a tour de force.

Watch Mikkelsen’s face as he picks up his new charge, who slips into and out of consciousness. Human contact he takes in like the hard, uncooked ramen noodles he devours in the crashed helicopter. He melts just at the embrace of another hang being.

“Arctic” doesn’t vary from the conventions of this genre — ever. But Mikkelsen’s star turn at the center of it makes this wintry tale its own “Revenent,” with suffering and compassion, terror and even humor playing out on his expressive face, with the occasional tidbit of Danish profanity (Overgard mostly speaks English) for comic emphasis.

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MPAA Rating: PG-13 for language and some bloody images

Cast: Mads Mikkelsen, Maria Thelma Smáradóttir

Credits: Directed by Joe Penna, script by Joe Penna and Ryan Morrison. A Bleecker Street release

Running time: 1:38

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