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“Against the Ice” Is a Compelling Arctic Survival Drama (Review)

Image courtesy of Netflix

The best thing about Against the Ice is pretty simple: in our era of green-screen CGI-filled blandness the filmmakers actually set out into the Greenland wilderness to film a survival story. It should not be such a big deal, and yet it is. When stars Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (Game of Thrones, A Taste of Hunger) and Joe Cole (Peaky Blinders) shiver, it’s because the performers are actually cold. When you look past the performers at a snowy vista, it is a place that actually exists. Call me crazy, but I want my survival stories to look like there’s actually something that requires surviving.

The film begins with minimal fuss as a Danish ship rests trapped in the Arctic ice near Greenland. Two explorers return from the ice and one promptly sees his frostbitten toes sliced off mechanically. It makes for an effectively brutal, largely exposition-free, introduction to the stakes of Against the Ice’s story. Soon, Captain Ejnar Mikkelsen (Coster-Waldau) and a newbie engineer Iver Iversen (Cole), the only volunteer of the crew, head off again into the snow. Their mission is simple on the page – to prove out the cartography of Greenland – but striking in impact. Their mission will serve to adjudicate a significant territorial dispute between Denmark and the United States. By proving Greenland is one land mass, Denmark’s claim to the territory will hold.

Image courtesy of Netflix

Armed with a rifle, a pair of sleds, and a score of dogs, the two explorers traverse the wilderness. The slow growing kinship of the men, the result more of time hardened together than actual bond, makes for compelling viewing. The film is dispassionate in how it metes out struggles; the survival elements feel gritty and believable. The expansive feel of the characters’ journey is suitably epic. To the film’s credit, the excitement becomes palpable as the men close in on completing their mission.

Coster-Waldau (who also co-wrote) and Cole are both strong. The stoic man of duty is Coster-Waldau’s wheelhouse and he delivers as one would expect. Cole, the more optimistic of the pair, manages the trick of playing green without feeling like too much of an audience proxy. The men themselves have a rough hewn chemistry that makes their interactions appealing. Even the film’s makeup is effectively evocative of men suffering in the cold. Back in Denmark, the ever wonderful Charles Dance serves as an institutional impediment to the tandem’s rescue in a fun bit of meta-casting (Dance played Coster-Waldau’s father on Game of Thrones).

Image courtesy of Netflix

Alas, the film’s last act sees the details of a fascinating survival story subsumed by spectral visions and magic realism. I was genuinely curious to see the details of how Mikkelsen and Iversen survived in the wilderness for as long as they did. However, the story twists into a narrative of their slowly fracturing psyches. It’s not bad, per se, but after the riveting sense of adventure of the film’s first hour the last act feels like a let down.

Nevertheless, there are two excellent lead performances here in a well crafted and, at times, absolutely enthralling survival story. So very many streaming movies have no interest in old fashioned on location film making, and I think it’s worth celebrating one that ventures so ably.

Image courtesy of Netflix

Against the Ice will be release on Netflix globally tomorrow, March 2, 2022.