In its starting moments, and for most of the first half, Arctic comes across exactly as it’s obviously meant to, which is a lean, suspenseful tale of survival. It’s mostly a showcase for the quiet power of Mads Mikkelsen, who has already crashed his plane in the middle of an unforgiving frozen landscape in the film’s opening shots.
A showcase like this is ideal for Mikkelsen, who quickly proves him character to be a competent, professional survivalist. There is little dialogue, no flashbacks to exactly what led him here, only what his life has become, which mostly consists of foraging successfully for food, keeping his makeshift home safe, and taking all the necessary measures to indicate he is alive and in need of rescue. And if it was in any way unclear what he’s up against, an aerial view quickly proves his smallness amidst the white vastness of his surroundings. That is when the truth really hits. No matter how competent or strong he is, none of it will matter unless he’s rescued.
One would-be rescue goes awry when the plane crashes, leaving only an unnamed woman as a survivor, and injured so badly she’s barely capable of speech. As her condition worsens and her situation becomes more urgent, Mikkelsen decides he must travel in search of help rather than waiting for help to come to him. So he journeys towards what he hopes will be a safe harbor, pulling the woman with him on a sled.
What first begins as an interesting journey soon becomes something even worse than dull. Boredom may be one of the worst cinematic sins, but at least that condition would’ve been some measure of contemplation, if not about the film, then about…something, The landscape. The cold. How far Mikkelsen has fallen from Hannibal. How many likes a well-deserved negative review might get. Instead, Arctic becomes an exercise in moralistic, idiotic sadism, with the woman he’s paired up with coming off a plot device, an excuse to throw more obstacles in the way of a man who’s too skilled to encounter many of them on his own. So inessential is her presence that not only is she not even named in the IMDB credits; she’s simply dubbed “Young Woman.”
When the obstacles get to be too much and Mikkelsen seriously contemplates leaving her, the movie swiftly punishes him in what it obviously deems the most appropriate way possible. Since he tries to abandon a debilitated person, Arctic debilitates him, even giving him a wound that resembles hers, after which is the only time she’s finally allowed to speak a word.
Such events can only signal the end is nigh one way or the other. Mikkelsen is well aware, discarding all of those possessions he considered essential, until they both finally arrive at what could be a chance. Arctic really tries its best to make its ending somewhat suspenseful, but it merely ends up being one last, completely unnecessary twist of the knife it can’t seem to remove from either character. By this time, the only relief possible is the fact that this movie finally, FINALLY, fades to black.