Though there have been some, always misjudged, attempts to bring internet celebrities into mainstream film, they remain rather separate worlds, with minimal success when crossing over. Joe Penna aka ‘Mystery Guitar Man’, one of the original stars of early YouTube, looks set to be one of the rare exceptions of this rule, with Arctic a very promising, though flawed, directorial debut. It’s not a typical ‘first film’, focusing more on the raw power of the elements than character, and Penna sets a high, challenging bar for himself and star Mads Mikkelsen. Though Mikkelsen always rises to it, the rest of the film is less consistent.
With minimal exposition, we’re thrown into the survival routine of Overgard (Mikkelsen), a man stranded in the Arctic tundra as the only survivor of a light aircraft crash. He spends his dark-less days fishing and vainly radioing for help, his only companion an alarm clock that lends his days vital structure. Eventually found by a rescue team, his elation is quickly scuppered by a brutal windstorm that crashes their helicopter, killing the pilot and leaving the co-pilot (Maria Thelma Smáradóttir) critically injured. Now with a person in his care, Overgard makes the dangerous call to leave his base and hike to a distant research station, dragging his bed-bound companion on a sled.
Arctic pretty much entirely rests on Mikkelsen’s shoulders, and he keeps it afloat with a performance of primal charisma. He affectingly sells the loneliness and fear of frozen isolation, as well as the sheer exhaustion of every day of life requiring Herculean physical effort. His mix of frustration and small joys when the helicopter crashes is fantastic; the failed rescue itself seems like a cruel joke from a malevolent god, but Mikkelsen’s pleasure at finding a gas burner and some pot noodles in the wreckage is infectious.
Outside of Mikkelsen, though, the rest of the film is shakier. Though there are some beautiful shots – the savage beauty of the North Pole is a gift to any cinematographer – there are also notable missteps. The score is very generic and on the nose, straining to lend an epic feeling to scenes that really don’t need it and Penna and co-writer Ryan Morrison have a habit of pushing things too far. The survivor pair encounter one or two too many disasters on their journey for these obstacles to retain their dramatic power and the ending stretches on for a good few minutes too long.
Penna shows a great amount of potential with Arctic, with a refreshing penchant for visual storytelling, and if you want proof that Mads Mikkelsen can hold the screen for 90 minutes by himself, here it is. There are definitely flaws, most of which can probably be chalked up to inexperience, but with tighter editing going forward, Penna’s career should be one to keep an eye on.