The age of polar exploration is having something of a renaissance on the small screen. The first season of AMC’s The Terror (2018) earned strong reviews and a still-growing cult following; who knew sad British men getting stuck in the ice, drawn to their dooms by imperial hubris and the supernatural, would prove such an obsession? The BBC released The Terror in 2021 and followed swiftly with The North Water, with fewer supernatural explanations for a real-life mystery but plenty of misery, disaster, and scruffy beards as Europeans contend with an environment they do not belong in.
Against the Ice, Netflix’s addition to the genre that premiered at the Berlinale before on the streaming platform fundamentally sets itself apart as a rescue mission rather than a misguided adventure into the unknown and perilous. Ejnar Mikkelsen (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and Iver Iversen (Joel Cole) are following the footsteps of lost colleagues. Their companions had not been seen since they set out to prove Greenland was one whole island rather than two; the result of the real-life expedition proved momentous for Denmark’s claim on Greenland, curbing American expansion and establishing Mikkelsen and Iversen as heroes. But before then, they must deal with the harsh practicalities of life in extreme cold, and where all sustenance must be carried by themselves and their dogs (spoilers: many, many dogs die).
Coster-Waldau and Cole are well-matched as a grizzled explorer and a Navy rookie. The evolution of their relationship and the strange, reluctant intimacy it engenders is the film’s high point. The two actors make their character’s very different goals from the start, and watching the experienced, pragmatic Arctic navigator Mikkelsen work with the capable but less assertive Iversen yields many surprises. Instead of veering towards the drama of survival and confrontation on a hostile planet, the understanding they reach subverts genre expectations.
Unfortunately, Against the Ice never cultivates the urgency the mission deserves. Perhaps in aiming for a naturalistic approach, director Peter Flinth and screenwriters Coster-Waldau and Joe Derrick underplay every beat. It allows the performances to take centre stage, but the great white Arctic expanses overpower them even when flatly lit. The result is a film where one understands the carefully balanced dynamic between two men but never delves into the interiority of either. In the end, both remain cyphers for the old myth of explorers, doing nothing to undercut the legend or interrogate this attitude of conquest and commerce.
The expedition’s ending is taken from history, but its handling on the screen feels almost too clean. Perhaps the uninspired pacing up to that point deprives the survivors of their catharsis and Mikkelsen’s reunion with his wife of its poignant improbability. Perhaps the schadenfreude of watching proud men meet their dooms is better cinema.
Against the Ice is available to stream on Netflix.
by Carmen Paddock
Carmen is an American living in Scotland. She holds a Masters in International Film Business from the University of Exeter / London Film School, and while now working in technology she keeps her love of film alive through overenthusiastic writing and an unhealthy amount of time spent at the cinema. Favourite films include West Side Story, 10 Things I Hate About You, Ever After, and Thor: Ragnarok. Follow her on Twitter @CarmenChloie