Opening Friday, Feb. 22

Arctic, a slow-building survival story set in an icy wilderness, is a movie you can engage with on two levels. The topmost is about a light aircraft pilot, played by Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen and his cheekbones, who crash-lands in the Arctic and must get by on his own, a million cold miles from anywhere at all. 

Like most stories in this vein, from Cast Away and The Martian all the way back to Robinson Crusoe, Arctic has a built-in fascination factor. There’s something intensely interesting about watching an individual trying to survive in a hostile environment with limited resources. This scenario is so primal and compelling, in fact, that there’s an entire genre of video games dedicated to providing the experience virtually.

Director Joe Penna takes an austere and procedural storytelling approach, detailing the extraordinary techniques our unnamed survivor uses to survive. He salvages metal from the plane crash to improvise a series of clever ice fishing contraptions. He redirects his own body heat to melt snow for drinking water. Wait until you see how he fights off the polar bear.

Then, the film takes an unexpected turn, introducing a second character and raising the stakes significantly. The story develops a new moral dimension. That’s when the hidden second level of engagement really kicks in. Deploying classic visual-storytelling techniques, Penna presents a series of crises for our lone survivor. Despite the absence of spoken dialogue, we’re aware at all times of the significance of each decision. Through images and editing, we understand the consequences of potential actions concerning maps, food, and medicine. And bears.

Mikkelsen is key to the whole operation, naturally, and he’s an old pro. He performs the magic trick that really good screen actors can do: telling entire stories with his eyes. The effect feels telepathic sometimes, like you can see exactly what he’s thinking. It’s impressive, because Arctic explores some subtle themes and itchy ambiguities about the human condition.

By the end, you realize you’ve processed this thought-provoking story with no spoken language at all. Actually, you don’t realize it until you think back later; that’s what makes it so cool. For film lovers of sufficient nerdiness, this kind of storytelling is delicious.