Against The Ice
In the early 1900’s, successive waves of expeditions travel from Denmark to the unmapped ice of Greenland, seeking to ward off the clams of other countries on the territory by proving there exists no channels separating the island in the furthest north. Ejnar Mikkelsen (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) is the leader of one such mission, departing with just inexperienced engineer Iver Iversen (Joe Cole) into the depths of the icy wastes to track down those who went previously and never came back. Over the course of a journey that will end up lasting far longer than planned, the two reckon with the dangers of the elements, animals and isolation.
“Man against nature” will always prove fruitful territory, and “Man against ice” specifically has made for some good work relatively recently, with Joe Penna’s Arctic in 2018 one of the sleeper hits of that year, and TV shows like The Terror and The North Water making waves (ha!) at the same time. It was hard not to think of Arctic when watching Against The Ice, a very similar film in terms of theme and action, albeit in an historical setting. It isn’t that Against The Ice is bad per say, but there’s a surprising lifelessness to it that is regrettable, turning what could be a stirring story of survival against the odds in pursuit of scientific discovery into a drawn-out slog. In comparison to 90 minutes of Mads Mikkelsen fighting the elements, it doesn’t really measure up.
And maybe it’s because Coster-Waldau and Cole just don’t measure up. In the first case we have a decent actor who has not been able to get beyond Westeros as other cast members have, and in the second we have a guy OK at playing a well-meaning stooge but who can’t really carry a film. Neither is able to generate the kind of chemistry required, not when discussing the ins-and-outs of Arctic exploration, not when discussing a mutual, but very differently expressed, fondness for women, and not when weeks, months and eventually years of isolation make things all turn a bit “Mountain of Madness” (we really are badly missing an Abe Lincoln hallucination proclaiming “It’s showtime!” ahead of a rumble with living snowmen). Too much of the film is characterised by Mikkelsen’s mild disdain for Iversen and Iversen’s doe-eyed admiration for Mikkelsen, with little in the way of progression: there’s a feeling that the film is going for team-based perseverance through adversity as a theme, but it doesn’t land.
And since that is the vast majority of the plot for Against The Ice, the film struggles. The late inclusion of a “what-could-have-been” romantic remembrance for Mikkelsen seems like something thrown in to break up the monotony of a two-hander that isn’t working, and the larger drama of the mission – which amounts to a loose episodic tale of various calamities, between the shooting of unneeded sled dogs, faulty equipment and polar bears – just doesn’t grab you, especially when the Danish minister played by Charles Dance – appearing in a strange extended cameo seemingly just to get his name on the billing – basically says Denmark is only financing such things to justify colonial holdings that make no profit for the mother country. In essence we have a story about an obsessive explorer risking life, limb and his personal happiness for the notion of completing a map in a part of the world no one really wants to own, and with his naïve sidekick who would rather be at home chasing girls. That is not as compelling a tale as director Peter Flinth, and co-writers Coster-Waldau and Joe Derrick, might think it is.
The film looks just fine. That’s damning with faint praise I fully realise, but I admit that there comes a time when “wide shots of vast landscapes” starts to not have as much impact on me. Against The Ice has lots of those, as Mikkelsen and Iversen go back-and-forth-and-back-again through Greenland. Certainly the vastness of the place is captured, but such things are meaningless when tied to a story that doesn’t make the most of that vastness as a setting. Scenes elsewhere, like very cheap looking asides back in Denmark, make little in the way of impact. Occasional title cards that note the number of days the mission has lasted are perhaps meant to instil a feeling of epicness, but instead only instil exhaustion. I think compared to something like Arctic, where the weather and the landscape seemed more like active players in the story, Against The Ice falls well short.
This sort of idea has been done better, and done better recently. I get the sense this may have been something of a passion project for Coster-Waldau given his involvement in front of and behind the camera, and on paper the idea is solid enough. But the execution has too many downsides to be considered anything other than lacking. Those downsides are in the poor pacing, the inessential asides back to Denmark and in the inability of the two leads to really make the very most of the material. The history of Arctic and Antarctic exploration is an epic worthy of adaptation, but this one can be left behind in the snow. Not recommended.
(All images are copyright of Netflix).