Against the Ice is a historical survivalist adventure drama based on the book ‘Two Against the Ice’ by Ejnar Mikkelsen and produced by Baltasar Kormákur, best known for directing accomplished survival drama thrillers Everest and Adrift. While the Icelandic filmmaker has a proven track record in this genre, this production is entrusted to Danish director Peter Flinth. Centred on the friendship between Captain Ejnar Mikkelsen and Iver Iversen, this powerful story revolves around Denmark’s Alabama Expedition in 1909, the choice of director makes perfect sense.
Instilling national pride by celebrating the country’s brave and intrepid explorers, Against the Ice journeys with these men as they set out to disprove the United States’ claim to North Eastern Greenland. Finding the proof that was mapped by fellow countrymen, the two begin the arduous return to base camp after a gruelling journey over many months, forcing them to endure extreme weather and life-threatening physical duress.
As if having a Danish filmmaker at the helm wasn’t enough, one of Denmark’s top acting exports heads the production as lead actor, producer and co-writer. Best known for Game of Thrones, Danish actor Nikolaj Coster-Waldau has made a strong transition from the popular medieval series with solid performances in films like Shot Caller and The Silencing. Against the Ice is his opportunity to cover one of his homeland’s historical endeavours, adapting Ejnar Mikkelsen’s powerful true story to screen. Primarily a two-hander between Nikolaj Coster-Waldau and Joe Cole, the icy, harsh and relentless Greenland environment becomes their enemy as the explorers face tough conditions and hard decisions after they return from a hard fought expedition.
The survivalist docudrama has echoes of Wolf Totem, Alive, Castaway, The Grey, The Revenant and The Martian. Wolf Totem’s docu-edge comes through in Against the Ice’s commitment to filming as if observing happenings rather than curating them. Being in the snow and subjected to extreme cold will help transport you whether you’re watching the film or acting in it. The harsh realities of the time for sleigh dogs will upset many viewers as these trusty servants become expendable. Treated with some affection, the team’s fatigue and lack of food catches up with them as sacrifices are made in the name of survival with faint echoes of the biographical adventure drama, Alive.
“Magnetic north, baby.”
These snow buddies may not be trapped on an island, able to forage for supplies at base camp but the situation is reminiscent of films like Castaway and The Martian. Branching out from an unlikely friendship, luckily not with a volleyball named Wilson, the duo try to keep spirits up as they wait for a rescue team that may never arrive. The drama leans heavily into its haunting mood as an old flame burns brighter in an ethereal dynamic reminiscent of flashbacks in The Grey and a polar bear recalls the famed scene from The Revenant. While the film comes across like a magpie, borrowing bits and pieces from more accomplished survivalist dramas, the powerful true story at its core keeps it honest.
Filming in snowy conditions, working with dogs and trying to bring honour to this remarkable story, Against the Ice is an admirable effort even if vaguely familiar and plodding at times. The adventure is set in motion so quickly that ironically you wonder where the meat of the story is – don’t ask. About 30 minutes in you stop asking “if we’re there yet?” and begin to realise that the recovery mission is just a checkpoint. Just as thoughts arise about how the filmmakers can possibly sustain the drama, the story evolves as the real challenge is finally revealed and things start to make more sense. Using a day counter, the story builds in magnitude but this could have been better reflected by the drama on screen.
Unfortunately, a wobbly genre handshake and subpar supporting performance almost derail the production as elements from The Shining surface. Protecting Heida Reed, best known for Poldark, the ethereal and wistful romance doesn’t quite work in the handover but adds colour to an otherwise straightforward survivalist drama. Against the Ice offers a vivid chronicle of Captain Ejnar Mikkelsen and Iver Iversen’s brave and resilient exploration amounting to a triumph of the human spirit. While you sense its importance and the production is handsomely mounted, it’s quite uninvolving and distant. Losing some of its docudrama integrity with the choice to film in English, the entertainment factor is subdued. The characters are reliant on the actors to foster warmth and heroic spirit and while there’s some friction, it’s all just a bit bland, uneventful and seemingly inconsequential.
Against the Ice isn’t a bad film. Much like its icy backdrop, it’s a bit cold and doesn’t do all that much to distinguish itself. The power of the true story comes to bear, the story gradually begins to snowball and there are some intriguing elements at play. However, the dull familiarity and similarities with other films tend to drag the inspiration out of this drama as the characters also begin to experience fatigue, hunger and malnutrition. Having so many Danes in the cast and crew, one would have hoped for a more spirited adventure but with no “star-spangled banner” bravado, the explorers have to rely on the grit of heroic gestures, stoicism and hardiness. While significant and realistic, skating between docudrama history and adventure drama entertainment, the film honours the explorers but somehow feels like a hollow victory.
The bottom line: Noble