Mikkleson is Overgård, a pilot stranded in the arctic. While he waits for rescue he lives in the battered fuselage of his downed plane. Outside a jerry-rigged series of fishing poles insure he has a non-stop supply of Arctic Trout sushi. Every day is a struggle to survive. The cold has already claimed several of his toes and there’s a hungry polar bear with a taste for Arctic Trout.
His methodical and precise nature keeps him alive, mixed with a healthy dose of optimism. “Maybe tomorrow,” he says when his hand-cranked beacon fails to attract the attention of rescuers. “Maybe the day after tomorrow.”
When a rescue helicopter crashes nearby leaving Overgård to play nurse to a gravely wounded woman (Maria Thelma Smáradóttir). Without ever learning her name or anything about her, he risks his life to toboggan his patient to safety.
A great subtitle for “Arctic” would have been “A Litany of Misery.” The unforgiving landscape and relentless cold offer no comfort to Overgård. By the time a polar bear gets up-close–and-personal, all teeth and primal menace, it doesn’t seem like it could get much worse. Then it does. “Arctic” takes the mundane tasks that keep the two characters alive and imbues them with a sense of danger. Getting drinking water brings with it the risk of an icy death and scrounging a Bic Lighter from a crash scene could mean the difference between surviving or not.
Director Joe Penna doesn’t sugar coat the situation. It is a grim slog given humanity by Mikkelson. In a nearly wordless performance he allows Overgård’s character to shine through in subtle ways, the precision with which he keeps his cockpit home orderly, the pleasure that spreads across his face as he catches his dinner, the devastation of a near rescue all speak to the personality of a guy who doesn’t have the give-up gene. The old joke goes that insert-name-here is so talented you’d watch them read the phonebook. Mikkelson doesn’t read the phonebook but he does make eating uncooked, crunchy ramen noodles compelling, so that’s something.
“Arctic” breathes the same air as survival films like “127 Hours” and “All Is Lost” but, despite the majesty of the landscape, feels smaller and more personal.