Against The Ice Review: A Beautiful Slow Burn Set In A Frozen Wasteland

Some true stories are almost too incredible to be believed, like Denmark's Arctic Expedition in 1909. Led by Captain Ejnar Mikkelsen, the team set out to dispute the United State's claim on Northeast Greenland. If the team could prove that Greenland was one massive piece of land and not two separate ones, as the U.S. believed, then the territory would remain Denmark's. After the ship was marooned in ice and a previous attempt to trek north failed, Mikkelsen set out to prove it himself, accompanied only by the ship's inexperienced young mechanic, Iver Iversen (Joe Cole). They manage to find proof but are beset upon by Mother Nature at almost every turn, facing off against the elements, sheer cliff faces, and even a hungry polar bear. They eventually returned to camp to discover that they had been abandoned, and it would be years before they finally saw rescue. Mikkelsen recounted his experiences in his book "Against the Ice," and that incredible journey has been turned into a movie on Netflix. 

"Against the Ice" stars Nikolaj Coster-Waldau ("Game of Thrones") as the grizzled Mikkelsen, who we're introduced to as he returns from a failed trek and is forced to cut off his partner's frostbitten toes. It's a pretty grim scene that sets the tone for the film, which rarely lets up in its unpleasantness. When Mikkelsen decides to set out again, no one wants to join him except for the young mechanic Iversen (Joe Cole), who volunteers. They hitch up the dog sleds and take off, but almost immediately things start going sideways. Iversen is tender-hearted and kind, and he's rather attached to his sled dogs. Mikkelsen warns him not to get attached because they might have to kill one dog to feed the others, but Iversen ignores the warning. The film's first major casualty is Iversen's favorite dog, and many more follow. Iversen's inexperience leads to the dog's death, setting him on a path to try to learn the ropes as fast as he can out of sheer survival. 

The first half of the film is a pseudo-"The Revenant," complete with a bear attack and our heroes eating some less-than-stellar meat. Unlike the character in that film, however, they have each other, and their frozen hell-forged friendship allows them to survive. There are plenty of opportunities for Mikkelsen and Iversen to turn on one another while they trek back to camp, but they manage to keep their mission and a sense of camaraderie alive. None of the dogs make it, but the two men at least manage to return to the boat. Unfortunately, the boat had been made into a camp, and the camp was abandoned when a rescue team arrived and the two explorers were still gone. The two then make camp in the crew's shack, thankful that they were left a year's worth of rations, just in case. 

The second half of "Against the Ice" follows Mikkelsen and Iversen as they begin to lose their minds in the desolation of the frozen wilderness. Months pass without any sign of rescue, and the two begin to fear that they will never see their families or homeland again. Mikkelsen begins having hallucinations of the woman he loves waiting for him back in Denmark, and these delusions start taking over his exhausted mind. Iversen helps him endure, though he begins having some instability of his own. Things are looking grim for the explorers, and grimmer still when Finance Minister Neergaard (Charles Dance), who sent the team in the first place, refuses to send another rescue mission to help them. 

A gorgeous and grueling tale in need of a trim

"Against the Ice" has a lot going for it. The landscapes of Greenland and Iceland, where the film was shot, are stunning, with natural light used to create absolutely incredible vistas. Danish cinematographer Torben Forsberg uses the setting well, and almost every still would make a beautiful painting, whether it's of the icy mountain ranges or just Coster-Waldau's tired eyes as he looks across a campfire. The performances are also stellar, and Coster-Waldau and Cole have the kind of on-screen chemistry that makes you believe in the power of their intense friendship. There is an authenticity to "Against the Ice" that's hard to fully put into words: the dogs are appropriately scruffy, the people look genuinely dirty, and the bitter cold seems to come right out of the screen. 

Throughout "Against the Ice," black title cards with white text appear every so often, letting the audience know how much time has passed since Mikkelsen and Iversen first set off on their expedition. As the numbers start getting almost ridiculously high, the movie starts to feel like a slog. The first half has quite a bit going on with the dogs, sled accidents, and bear attack, but the second half is a purely psychological thriller with an interesting backdrop. There are some good bits here, and much of it was pulled directly from Mikkelsen's memoir, but it drags on slightly too long and begins to mimic the tedium of the actual experience these men endured.

This is clearly a passion project for Coster-Waldau, who co-wrote the script with Joe Derrick and co-produced the film with Baltasar Kormákur. It shows great potential for his future endeavors, and "Against the Ice" would be a much better film with about 20 minutes cut out of the second half, where the drama goes on just a bit too long. If you're looking for a feel-bad movie with some absolutely stunning cinematography and an appreciation for the tenacity of the human spirit, then "Against the Ice" was made for you. 

/Film Rating: 5 out of 10