Silent movies are action movies. Instead of Hitchcock’s “pictures of people talking”, the images in silent films are of people doing, being: walking, fighting, dancing, poking the fire, stirring their tea, knitting a scarf. Sometimes the reverse is true. Action movies can be silent, or at least, so unreliant on dialogue as to function like a silent film.
Which brings us to Arctic, and a subgenre I am going to call the ‘silent survival film’. I named it myself, because I made it up myself. Arctic, like All is Lost or The Red Turtle, recently reviewed on this site, offers the spectacle of a lone survivor, one man among the voiceless elements, fighting for his own life. We see the hero of the silent survival film act, and more importantly plan, in silence. The suspense is not just about whether he or she will survive, but how they will make the attempt. The silence, or rather the absence of dialogue, increases the tension, and the fascination.
You could add films such as A Quiet Place and the excellent The Naked Island to this list. The circumstances are different, but the families in each of these films work together, in mostly silence, to get by. We watch them as we do the characters in a silent movie, without verbal cues as to what they will do next, we scrutinise their expressions, their eyelines, the objects they pick up. The intuitive family bond is expressed, rather than hidden, by their mutual silence.
The antithesis of a silent survival film? Gravity, 127 Hours, The Martian or anything else that fills the air with video diaries, voiceovers or monologues to distract from the sight of a body in space, in peril, the image of self-reliance and stoic heroism.
In Arctic, Mads Mikkelsen, plays the survivor of a plane crash, stranded in the frozen north. At first we see him busily digging snow, perhaps to create a trench or bunker – an overhead shot reveals that he is actually issuing a silent distress call, a giant SOS. Mikkelsen carries this tense film well, with his weatherbeaten face and slow methodical movements. It helps a silent survival film when a movie star has one of those endlessly watchable faces, like Redford’s in All is Lost, or Mikkelsen’s here.
Arctic is an engrossing movie and sometimes almost unbearably tense film, shot smartly by debut director Joe Penna. It builds to a devastating conclusion too – clearly Penna has thought carefully about where to end his story. It’s slightly sardonic as well, in the way it is attuned to the frustrating and bizarre details of its hero’s existence. He has to use alarms to regulate his sleep because of the endless Arctic days; the sight of a flower struggling through the snow is not a beacon of hope but an omen of catastrophe.
It isn’t quite a silent movie, of course, but it’s close. We hear little from Mikkelsen bar grunts and sighs as he fights to keep warm, to attract attention, and in one memorable sequence, to attempt the Sisyphean task of climbing a hill with a heavy load on his sled.
What’s on the sled? That’s my only problem with Arctic actually. There’s a woman on the sled – Mikkelsen’s only companion, the comatose survivor of a helicopter crash that shatters his empty corner of the Arctic circle. She needs medical attention and this motivates our hero to shift location, but as she is unconscious, he continues to act as a lone operator, and hardly speaks.
Here we meet the limits of this particular silent survival film, with another trope borrowed from video games. It’s a grimly appropriate one, too. The woman on the sled is kind of a “woman in a refrigerator”, a passive female character who is attacked, or here, injured in a helicopter crash, just to move the male character’s story forward. In order to give us this mesmerising, man-of-action hero, Arctic partners him with a lifeless damsel in distress. With statistics telling us that men have twice the amount of dialogue as women in the most popular movies, I’d have loved to see a gender-reversal in the casting here.
- Arctic is out this weekend.
- You can read the Guardian’s review here.
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