REVIEW: Against the Ice [2022]

Rating: 6 out of 10.
  • Rating: NR | Runtime: 102 minutes
    Release Date: March 2nd, 2022 (Iceland)
    Studio: Netflix
    Director(s): Peter Flinth
    Writer(s): Nikolaj Coster-Waldau & Joe Derrick / Ejnar Mikkelsen (novel)

They say there’s truth in every dream.

I must say that I was excited coming into Against the Ice. It has a captivating premise centered around an Arctic expedition at the northern end of Greenland circa 1909, is based on the autobiographical account of Captain Ejnar Mikkelsen, and deals with an almost three-year survival opposite extreme weather conditions, isolation, and polar bears. Director Peter Flinth ratcheted up my anticipation even higher during the opening scene, dropping us into the action as Mikkelsen (played by Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, who also co-adapted the screenplay with Joe Derrick) is sledging back to camp with his second-in-command Jörgensen (Gísli Örn Garðarsson) in desperate need of medical attention for frostbitten toes. The filmmakers skip past all the exposition to get right to the meat of the adventure. I buckled myself in.

And, for a time, they make good on that promise. The opening act is effectively structured, introducing the characters (men who have been on Mikkelsen’s crew multiple times and the green newcomer, Joe Cole‘s mechanic Iver Iversen, picked up in Iceland when their ship needed engine work), explaining the reasons for being in the ice (claiming the body and findings of Mikkelsen’s old friend who never returned home after being tasked to prove America’s claim on part of the island was void a few years earlier), and setting the stage for what’s to follow. How can you not get pulled in by the intrigue of a grizzled veteran and enthusiastic yet naïve amateur teaming up to do the impossible? The potential for tense drama and action is boundless.

The unfortunate truth of the matter, however, is that, like this duo’s supplies, the returns diminish with every passing day. We’re prepared in that first scene of Mikkelsen coming back to camp with one sledge and minimal dogs for a reality where the room for chaos shrinks exponentially. The less weight you carry, the fewer dogs you need. The fewer dogs you have, the fewer sledges are required. The weather is always cold, the distance always long, and the food always sparse, but eventually we’re left with two men praying they’ll make it a little bit further. Maybe a bear will come and jolt us awake with some violence and maybe Iversen’s inexperience threatens grievous injury to body and provisions, but that adversity only sustains us so long.

It puts a lot of pressure on the second half of the film to maintain a similar level of heightened adventure it simply cannot meet. That’s not to say it’s bad or that it ruins what came before it, though. I do believe Against the Ice is a success insofar as its ability to memorialize these unsung heroes braving the elements to do right by their people (even if “doing right” is colonialism and thus puts a damper on the whole ordeal). The story itself just isn’t quite as spellbinding as one may believe due to its familiarity and back-heavy construction. I wonder if things might have improved by expanding the expedition portion and compressing the waiting portion. Give us more The Revenant and less The Lighthouse (reductively speaking).

There are some wonderful scenes during that waiting, though. From the dream of a beautiful savior (Heida Reed‘s Naja) landing a hot air balloon outside their camp to the joy of fixing a record player for entertainment (if you’re going to be stranded for years in one place, having someone that can repair everything is definitely a plus), we do get to see Ejnar and Iver connecting on a human level they never reached when out on the ice and duty-bound by a military-based power structure. Too many of these moments unfortunately feel like vignettes rather than sustained progression. Where the suspense of being in the elements propelled us forward, we ultimately find ourselves losing our minds from the monotony right alongside these characters upon being locked inside.

Constantly shifting to Denmark to watch Jörgensen fight with politicians (including Charles Dance‘s Neergaard) helps break things up, but their interactions are no less repetitive considering one wants to do whatever is necessary to go back while the other refuses to spend tax money on a third expedition to acquire what he believes should have taken one. The stilted nature of both back-and-forths is thankfully saved by the performances of all involved, the acting proving a consistent strong point of the whole. It needs to be considering so much of the runtime is spent with Coster-Waldau and Cole. We need to believe in their evolution as well as their unavoidable flaws. Where strength of will was necessary on the ice, strength of mind is paramount for the rest.

Making the latter as interesting as the former is more difficult than it might seem because you can’t just throw a tragedy into the mix and see what happens. Where cliffs and bears (the CGI isn’t great, but it’s not on-screen long enough for it to matter) can get your pulse-pounding, the usual deterioration of sanity often proves more tedious here than suspenseful. And the rapid shift through days like chapters in Mikkelsen’s book does little to allow us to sit with the characters as more than pawns hitting checkpoints on their way to salvation or death. Wondering if Mikkelsen kills Iversen courtesy of his delusions before starvation takes them both is more academic than impactful because it doesn’t really matter. Thrills become reenactment; promise becomes missed opportunity.

[1] Against the Ice. Nikolaj Coster Waldau as Ejnar Mikkelsen in Against the Ice. Cr. Lilja Jonsdottir/Netflix © 2022.
[2] Against the Ice. Joe Cole as Iver P. Iversen in Against the Ice. Cr. Lilja Jonsdottir/Netflix © 2022.
[3] Against the Ice. Heida Reed as Naja in Against the Ice. Cr. Lilja Jonsdottir/Netflix © 2022.

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