Any survival movie worth its salt makes the audience imagine itself in the protagonist’s battered shoes. No one wants to go against the odds in real life, not even the most active adventurer — but imagining yourself in the heroic struggle is a stimulating exercise.
Movies can make you think about the worst-case scenario and bring you face to face with people battling the wilderness, and relying on instinct to hang on as long as possible.
In the near-perfect and intense survival drama Arctic, Mads Mikkelsen (Hannibal) portrays an engineer named Overgård who is stranded in the Arctic after a plane crash. When he discovers a young woman (Maria Thelma Smáradóttir) who is also stranded, he must decide whether stay at his makeshift camp or embark on a deadly journey through the cold unknown to save her — and himself.
The film, co-written and directed by Joe Penna (in his feature debut) is a remarkable achievement. For a film of so few words, the visual language of storytelling and Mikkelsen’s career-best performance carries this film safely home. Through carefully calculated camera movements (or happy accidents) and Mikkelsen’s scenes of reflection, audiences are invited to be active participants in the story. It’s not a film that spells out all the answers or makes it easy. It’s thoughtful and true to the human experience.
I spoke with Mikkelsen recently by phone to discuss the film’s subtleties, his approach to the character and how he adapted to the extreme conditions himself.
Preston Barta: There’s so much that can be read between the lines in this film. Of all the small details found in the visuals or in your performance, what was the biggest takeaway and what taught you the most about humanity?
Mads Mikkelsen: “We were spending an awful amount of time finding little details and subtleties in the script phase. But once we entered the actual environment, we discovered even more things we could do. We wanted the film to be more than just a survival tale. We wanted to tell the story about the enormous difference of surviving and being alive.
"One of my favorite subtleties that came up is once he saves the young woman. He’s a very practical man, and we establish that earlier on. So, he saves her, gets her out of the chopper and travels across the country for hours and hours. When he takes her back to where his camp [is], he slowly lays her down and then hugs her. He realizes he hasn’t been near a human being in a long time. I thought it was a very beautiful and poetic moment that just came out of nowhere."
I was actually going to bring up that very scene, because it also was my favorite. Are these kinds of stories your favorite to explore, where audiences are invited to be active participants?
“Definitely. I don’t want to understand everything right away. I want to be with him, and then I want to learn throughout the film. We could easily explain a lot of things by having the classic flashback or have [the young woman] wake up and the two go down memory lane together. But we found it more interesting to avoid that and let this character be you and me. I want it to feel like [the viewer is] in this situation.”
How do you mentally prepare for scenes where your character is quietly reflecting on something, but the audience can collect a lot of information from?
“It varies a lot. I remember in the beginning that the character (and me as well) focused on doing insane things to stay sane. It sounds weird, but there’s a logic to it. Counting out loud to yourself, listening to your voice, doing it in different languages, doing even numbers one time and odd numbers another — anything to try to keep sane.
"There was a lot of math and patterns he would think about and speak about, but then, all of a sudden, other things happen. His eyes will dwell from something and he would get lost. There was never a bird because there were no birds, but it could be him imagining a bird out there. So, it varied a lot. We didn’t always plan it; it just took me places sometimes. It’s beyond beautiful out there [in the Icelandic mountains], so your imagination is just running away with you.”
Another component that I gravitated toward in the film was how smart your character is. It’s important to show human error, of course, but the routine that he establishes for himself and how he carefully considers all options — it’s astonishing.
“Yes. He’s smart to a degree. He’s an engineer. I don’t want to be watching a film where 90 percent of the audience goes, ‘No. You do this instead.’ That’s not good if that happens. Unless we’re dealing with a man that is a complete idiot, then it’s OK. [Laughs] He’s a smart man. I wouldn’t be able to come up with a lot of the stuff that he does. Maybe he’s a little more capable when it comes to electronics — but the fishing holes, the way he preserves his food and makes his bed, a lot of us are capable of that. If he was [genius-level smart], it would be a different film. We wanted him to be in the area where most of us would have done the same.”
So, do you think you could survive the situation yourself?
“[Laughs] I don’t want to be tested on it, but I think I might. It’s one of these interesting fantasies that a lot of us have. There’s something to be said about being put in a situation where you’re really being tested. Could I do this? Could I manage that? Do I have the stomach to eat that way? And the answer is yes. A lot of us have survival instincts.”
I remember reading that for The Revenant, which this film makes a great companion piece with, that the weather conditions severely altered production. There are a few storms shown in the film. Did the weather change the story at all for you guys?
“We did not divert too much from what was written. We had to make some compromises and change the plans, because there’s weather all the time. Mostly, we would fantasize about a clear, blue sky in one scene and a blizzard in the next, but we had to give up on that. It constantly changed. So, we had to look at each other and say, ‘Listen. We have to go with the flow here.’”
I know this is Joe Penna’s first feature film, but the way that it is shot, the music and the construction of it feels like he’s been doing it for quite a long time. What was it like being under his wing and being in the conditions where he was taking control of the environment and the story?
“You said it. I never would have guessed that was his first film. Never in a million years. We had a wonderful, nonstop dialogue. Every evening we would analyze what we’ve done and how to approach the next day. At the same time, there’s something about first-time filmmakers. They’re ruthless. They don’t compromise and they’re radical. A film like this needs that. You got to go with your idea. If you start diverting away from it, it will be something else.”
Fortunately, it is not something else. It’s the first great film of 2019. So, make a trip to either the Angelika Film Center in Dallas or in Plano to see it this weekend.