If you still need proof that writer/director J.C. Chandor’s work on 2013’s All Is Lost remains stranded aboard the shipwrecked SS Underrated, look no further than 2019’s Arctic.
When the former was released, Robert Redford’s solo, silent(ish) turn hogged the spotlight — understandably so — but the film isn’t as much of a one-man show as it appears on screen; everyone behind the camera were equally integral to its success.
Case in point: Arctic’s Mads Mikkelsen should be just as capable as Redford at shouldering a similar affair; replace All Is Lost’s water with tundra, and — voila! — that’s basically Arctic’s man vs. nature tale. Audiences don’t have the same sort of history with Mikkelsen as we do marveling Redford’s mug, but usually Mikkelsen can be more than relied upon to add character-actor flavor to any cinematic stew, a skill that could be utilized to affecting effect as an unconventional lead. But the prototypical Straight Man-ness of his role in Arctic cramps his style (Redford’s the epitome of a Hollywood Straight Man).
Maybe Mikkelsen should be criticized for failing to elevate the material, but it’s ill-suited to his wasted talents; he was seemingly provided just as few helping hands on set as his deserted character in the actual movie. The filmmaking is starved of All Is Lost’s thoughtful expressionism and immersive experientialism, which is to say: we neither feel his struggle, nor are intellectually compelled to contemplate its allegorical, universal dimensions; in its current form, the story serves as little more than merely a basic reminder of humanity’s perseverance.
The only question it kept making me ponder: would Arctic be more engaging if it was based on a true story? I’m sure this version is rooted in extensive factual research, but there’s always going to be more intrinsic interest surrounding a true story, even if this technically-fictional iteration represents the too-real plights of too many past survivors and victims. But, at the end of the day, it’s always about the execution; the how tends to be more important than the what, no matter the specifics of the latter.