A film review by Craig J. Koban March 20, 2022

AGAINST THE ICE jjj
½ 

2022, R, 101 mins.

Nikolaj Coster-Waldau as Captain Ejnar Mikkelsen  /  Joe Cole as Iver Iversen  /  Charles Dance as Neergaard  /  Heida Reed as Naja  /  Gķsli Örn Garšarsson as Jörgensen  /  Sam Redford as Laub

Directed by Peter Flinth  /  Written by Nikolaj Coster-Waldau and Joe Derrick, based on the book by Ejnar Mikkelsen

ORIGINAL FILM

A few weeks ago I screened the new outdoor survival/shark attack thriller THE REQUIN and was instantly and completely taken aback by just how pathetically fake the whole film looked.  There are certain kinds of genre films that may benefit from a digital backlot process, but when telling a story of people dealing with the tangible elements it's of paramount importance to have actual tangible elements in said film.  THE REQUIN made the cardinal and unforgivable blunder of shooting everything on greenscreen soundstages...and it egregiously showed.  The overall effect in that film was so distracting that it just took me out of film.  I never once felt that its two characters were (a) ever at sea or (b) in any real peril. 

This brings me to the new Netflix historical survival thriller AGAINST THE ICE, which focuses on the compelling tale of two Danish Arctic explorers that ventured to the absolute tail end of Greenland to recover the records of another ill fated Danish expedition that went beforehand.  Like THE REQUIN, AGAINST THE ICE spins a narrative of two people at the absolute mercy of the terribly inhospitable environments that they eventually become trapped within and with no apparent help in site.  These explorers not only had to stave off hunger, but also attack from predatory animals...and all while their collective grip on sanity was dwindling.  The key difference with this Peter Flinth director affair is that - unlike THE REQUIN - much of it appears to have been shot practically (albeit, with some key CG alterations in a few places).  Everything looks natural and real in AGAINST THE ICE, from the locations themselves to even the cold breath emanating from the actors' mouths.  I felt the penetrating cold and the dangers presented with such extremes in climate all throughout this story, which ultimately is what makes it so - no pun intended - chillingly effective and brimming with verisimilitude and immediacy.   

The screenplay - co-written by one of the film's main stars in Nikolaj Coster Waldau - does a routinely good job of quickly dishing out the historical/expositional particulars.  He plays Denmark's Captain Ejnar Mikkelsen, who in 1909 teams up with a lowly engineer in Iver Iversen (Joe Cole) in plotting a daring - and highly dangerous - expedition out to Shannon Island, East Greenland to recover the dead bodies and documents of a previous Danish expedition out there that never made it back.  One previous attempt to make it out there fell short, which leads to Mikkelson drafting Iverson for the hazardous trek to come (yeah, not too many others volunteered for what looked like a certain death sentence).  The pair began their journey in March with a sworn promise to return by August, which seemed overwhelmingly hopeful considering the limitless obstacles and setbacks that would eventually come their way. 

Trouble hits the intrepid duo when - just a few days in - two of their sled dogs die (this is most definitely not a film for canine lovers...so be warned), not to mention that the harsh artic temperatures and conditions are crippling and man hungry polar bears show up that could easily make these men a midnight snack in no time.  Mikkelsen and Iversen's mission is time dependent and highly political:  If they are to make it to the aforementioned failed and doomed expedition and uncover its records that proved Danish explorers charted Greenland's most remote borders (and not the Americans) then Denmark would have rightful claim to the area.  The mission becomes truly frightening, though, when they arrive at their destination of the lost vessel and discover that it's abandoned and completely damaged.  They do, however, discover a nearby cabin with enough provisions (they hope) to last as long as possible.  

Maybe a year, they thought.  

They wouldn't be rescued until 1912, and during those two hellish winters the men nearly went insane trying to stay alive. 

 

 

I've lived in Canada my entire life and have experienced winters that are the stuff of nightmares.  I can tell when this weather and conditions are faked in movies, but AGAINST THE ICE was shot on location in Iceland and Greenland, and it really lends an instant aura of authenticity to the proceedings.  Shot with an exquisite eye by Torben Forsberg, you gain an impression for both the rugged beauty and endless dangers that these snow and ice covered vistas present to these courageous men that audaciously thrust themselves into this Arctic heart of darkness.  Survival films live and breath on the sense of realism that they bring to the table (and, of course, the struggles of people trying to survive in such nasty conditions), and AGAINST THE ICE does a truly bravura job in this instance.  Plus, there are plenty of hair-raisingly scary and tense moments littered throughout the story, like, early on, a breathlessly suspenseful moment featuring the mens' sled dangling over a high icy precipice that would lead to certain death if anyone - man or sled dog - were left to their doom and fell down into it.  There are two sequences later on featuring polar bear attacks (the first of which kind of echoes a similar grizzly bear attack in THE REVENANT) and a later one showing another bear sniffing around outside of their cabin.  I do think the effects work here with these animals is a bit hit or miss, but mercifully AGAINST THE ICE doesn't dwell on them for too long. 

There are other eerie moments in the film, such a haunting piece of foreshadowing dialogue in the initial stages of the expedition between Mikkelsen and Iversen, during which time the former instructs the other to not get too attached to his sled dog, because if the dire situation presents itself then it may have to be put down and then used for food.  Things do spiral out of control for these poor stranded men the longer they remain stranded, such as them starting to witness bizarre hallucinations of everyday objects (everything from cars to hot air balloons appear...but are they real or just figments of their stressed imaginations and yearnings to be saved?).  We also get obligatory dialogue exchanges regarding what could be unavoidable cannibalism, which further taxes their soul crushing survival dilemma.  AGAINST THE ICE is well cast with the likes of Coster-Waldau and Cole, with both men managing to evoke a tireless, teeth clench determination alongside later feelings of total helplessness.  Coster-Waldau in particular is quite great when the film relies on him to plunge headfirst into Mikkelsen's madness while being trapped in the wild for years.  The actor finds a way of making you feel his break from reality without it becoming a histrionic piece of camera mugging overacting, which is a commendable feat in itself. 

AGAINST THE ICE isn't just a two-man performance showpiece, though, and it's a treat to see Coster-Waldau's GAME OF THRONES co-star in the great Charles Dance play a small, but crucial supporting character as the Danish cultural minister that will stop at nothing to ensure that his nation will claim parts of Greenland before any American can.  I think that if there's one fault that I found in AGAINST THE ICE is that it's a bit of a jolt to hear many of these Danish characters sound largely British throughout, but that frankly didn't bother me too much (HBO's recent CHERNOBYL mini-series kind of did the same thing, but the performances were so good that I just ended up ignoring the lack of region specific accents throughout). There are also some minor pacing issues that affected the flow of the storytelling at times, and there are stretches in Mikkelsen's and Iversen's survival woes when nothing truly thrilling happens.  Still, what AGAINST THE ICE successfully has going for it is a stunningly assured artifice that truly grounds viewers in the pure environmental dread that befalls its characters.  And I also was taken in with this seldom touched upon (at least in films) historical aspect of Greenland's conquest by explorers that would do anything to claim it for their nation...or die trying.  Man versus nature adventure thrillers are relatively a dime a dozen, but there's nothing cheaply made about AGAINST THE ICE.  It's genuinely grippingly, thrillingly shot, superbly acted, and has a certainly crazy pulp appeal as far as these genres efforts go.  Most importantly, the film is harsh reminder of the human toil that comes with the exploration of uncharted parts of our planet.  

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