There has been an accident which has left this man, Overgard (Mads Mikkelsen), alone in the Arctic with only his crashed plane for shelter. He is living in hope of being picked up by a rescue team, and to that end has carved a large "SOS" out of the snow, plus he spends hours every day using a wind-up radio signal to alert anybody out there to his presence, but so far nobody has arrived. Luckily, he has fashioned angling equipment out of the odds and ends he has in the wreckage to collect fish to eat, but when he finds something has been helping itself to a box of them he was keeping, he is justifiably alarmed: this can only mean there is a polar bear in the local vicinity, a hungry one.
Survival tales have been part of cinema ever since Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe was first filmed, and though they rarely make the top lists of the most popular movies ever created, they do carry their own satisfaction. As the title suggests, Arctic took place in the snowbound wastes of the North - it was shot in Iceland, which at least has the landscape looking striking – but whether these yarns take place in the desert or the jungle or anywhere else a long way away from civilisation of whatever stripe, they tended to follow the same pattern. Mostly, there would be a small cast, sometimes even of one person, and the locations would prefer to take in the majesty of the natural world.
With the emphasis on how dispassionately that world will observe the struggles of the people doing the surviving, as if nothing in this universe can encourage or discourage the path of life, it will simply let things happen without intervening to make sure anything has an advantage or preferential treatment. Anything non-human will have the upper hand, er, paw - leaf? - anyway, the humans who have retreated from their comfort zones will be punished for this hubris, that they could readily believe they were in any way welcome when Mother Nature is decidedly non-maternal in her care and attention from any one of her most evolved denizens who have strayed from the home.
Mikkelsen looked in the early stages to be in for a showcase where he had the screen all to himself, but soon after his plight is set out, a helicopter comes to save him. That was a short film, you think (well, the director Joe Penna started out making online videos), but nope, after trying to land the copter only goes and crashes in the dreadful weather conditions, just like Overgard presumably did. Now, the lack of a backstory contributes to the stark texture of the experience, but it also lifts any blame from the protagonist, for we do not know what he was doing, flying out there in a poor climate, and if it was his own stupid fault for causing himself to crash. If it was, he had a death on his conscience, as the pilot of the rescue mission dies, and his co-pilot (Maria Thelma Smáradóttir) is barely conscious.
Overgard (we learn his name from an identity card) takes it upon himself to make sure this young lady survives, but you have your doubts about his skills throughout. Of course, either this was because Penna and his co-writer Ryan Morrison were basing their knowledge of survival in extreme circumstances from the similar movies they had watched, or it was because their hero was not too well-versed in what to do in a crisis like this, therefore was prone to making mistakes. If it was the latter, then they left themselves open to pedants who took a "you don't wanna do it like that!" approach to their view of the film, but on the other hand it gave them a wider opportunity to chart out the obstacles he could encounter as he inevitably realises nobody else can find him and he and the comatose co-pilot will have to head off across the hostile wastelands to what they hope is safety. At times it felt as if Penna and Morrison were playing a cosmic joke on their main character, and the feeling they were toying, Godlike, with him was never far away. But as a basic adventure made on strict terms, it wasn't bad. Music by Joseph Trapanese.