A man survives in a desolate, frigid landscape using common sense and practicality. That's what audiences are dropped into in the upcoming film Arctic, out Feb. 1, and that's what they can expect for most of its runtime. Star Mads Mikkelsen plays Overgaard, the lone survivor of a light plane crash, who checks fishing holes, maintains a giant SOS sign, and checks radio frequencies. It doesn't sound that exciting, until you realize just how deadly the surrounding world is, and how fragile a lone human life is among it. But is Arctic based on a true story?
But it seems the origins of Arctic aren't grounded in reality — they weren't even down to earth. In an interview with Festival de Cannes, director Joe Penna said the original idea for Arctic took place in an even more inhospitable environment. "Two years ago, I came across a depiction of what Mars could look like one day during terraforming. I wondered what would happen if someone were stranded on the outskirts of that barely-hospitable environment ... However, the story seemed to be encumbered by the technicalities of survival in an oxygen-deprived atmosphere. So we decided instead to pit our protagonist against the cold, in the harshest survivable environment on Earth: The Arctic Circle."
He put it a little more directly speaking to Variety: "Arctic was originally set on Mars, but then we heard about The Martian. Shooting in Iceland was good for the film, but not for me as a Brazilian man." The film is a first feature for Penna; for those unfamiliar with the name, they might know him better by his YouTube handle: MysteryGuitarMan. The newbie feature director was one of YouTube's first viral stars, with the 7th most-watched channel of all time, according to Business Insider.
His popularity led him to drop out of his pre-med program and devote all his time to YouTube celebrity, creating videos of himself playing the guitar. He gained technical competence, and when YouTube tweaked its algorithms, according to The Guardian, Penna sought bigger video endeavors. He made music videos, interactive web series, and now, a feature film as quiet and silent as his original videos were loud and silly.
"The landscape is the main character of the film," Mikkelsen says talking to WWD. "They have a saying in Iceland: 'If you don’t like the weather, just wait five minutes.' It’s so radical ... There was a day when we opened the car door on the mountain and the door flew off, it just broke off and flew away. Obviously, we couldn’t shoot on that day." With barely any dialogue and only one other actor in the film (who's unconscious and unresponsive), the landscape really is the dominant character of Arctic.
The character remains mostly a mystery. "We don’t talk about it but he’s a flight engineer. So obviously he has some technical skill," Mikkelsen tells Film School Rejects. The choice to not reveal or focus much on Overgaard's backgrounds or motivations is what helps set Arctic apart from other survival stories. "We didn’t want that background. We didn’t want him to learn a big lesson. That for us would be too small of a story, not interesting," he added.
Leaving the human element small and defended only by common sense makes the landscape seem all the larger and alien. Arctic premiered at Cannes earlier this year, comes to theaters this Friday.