The bravest of brave souls have been forging their way through uncharted areas of the Arctic for hundreds of years. Each of these expeditions inevitably contains its own thrilling avalanche of near-fatal roadblocks; from frostbite to hungry bears, it just comes with the territory. One of the most riveting accounts of Arctic exploration is that of the Alabama expedition to northeast Greenland in 1909. This excursion saw prolific Danish explorer Ejnar Mikkelsen and his crew on a quest to recover diaries left behind by members of the failed Mylius-Erichsen expedition, a mission that had ventured to prove that Greenland was not divided by a coast, and therefore did not partially belong to the United States.
Director Peter Flinth’s Against the Ice tells the story of the Alabama expedition, with a screenplay adapted from Mikkelsen’s own Two Against the Ice, an intimate memoir which chronicles his treacherous days in the snow. At times, Mikkelsen’s story is almost too fantastical to believe: From poisonings to sled-dogs hanging off of cliffs by ropes to a polar plunge with a polar bear, the explorer came up against just about every obstacle you could possibly think of.
So why, then, is Flinth’s retelling overwhelmingly repetitive and mundane? Against the Ice boasts a remarkably promising set-up, which teases a captivating Arctic flick on par with Joe Carnahan’s nail-biting, Liam Neeson-centric The Grey. In the first scene, a man returns to the remote Alabama basecamp, disheartened and exhausted from a failed journey to retrieve the journals from the previous expedition. His right foot is completely ravaged by frostbite, so a crew member dutifully extracts each toe, one-by-one, with a pair of pliers. Unwilling to accept defeat, Ejnar Mikkelsen (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) announces that he is going to seek the journals out himself, accompanied by Iver Iversen (Joe Cole), an eager, inexperienced mechanic who zealously volunteers.
All of the pieces are there. We’ve got the underdog who is bound to make a plethora of hazardous mistakes, alongside a weathered explorer with a fierce “whatever-it-takes” mindset. We also have clear proof that the Arctic takes no prisoners (those toes are no laughing matter) and treacherous snowy ambiance constructed masterfully by Flinth through deafening winds, a blinding landscape and eerily empty wide shots which convey the unsettling endlessness of the Arctic tundra.
But once Ejnar and Iver actually embark on their journey, Against the Ice is suddenly sapped of any tension it had once promised. Much of this can be attributed to the film’s lethargic pacing. We are immediately supplied with an abundance of scenes of the duo trudging across the ice (which in itself is difficult to tolerate after a while) and somehow, when sparse moments of action interject, they possess the same sluggishness. When the first hurdle finally arrives—Iver’s dogsled tumbles off of a cliff and he has a mere fraction of a second to salvage both his and Ejnar’s food, and one of their dogs—the lackadaisical filmmaking turns it into a moment that feels largely inconsequential.
Perhaps some of this has to do with the fact that the film’s framework is somewhat confusing. The Alabama expedition is a very niche juncture in Danish history—one that not a lot of people are aware of today. Despite this, Against the Ice doesn’t offer much explanation, and this vague setup certainly doesn’t help instill any sense of urgency. Indeed, two guys traveling through 500 miles of snow to (maybe) retrieve a journal doesn’t really make a whole lot of sense without a little bit of context.
The fact that the film stars primarily English actors, too, despite being based on a story that is incredibly geographically and culturally specific, certainly doesn’t do it any favors. Of course, this isn’t an uncommon creative (and/or marketing) choice, but Flinth doesn’t make much effort to pinpoint the film to a certain time and place in general, despite its subject matter already being considerably elusive. Characters speak like they’re from the 21st century—so much so that whenever I remembered that the film was set in the 1910s, it was jarring. (Not as jarring, I might add, as the giant CGI polar bear—but that’s because nothing could possibly be.)
Luckily, Against the Ice is amply propped up by exemplary performances from its leads. Cole brings a soft watchful quality to the puppyish Iver, and Coster-Waldau plays Ejnar as precariously stoic and ready to quietly crumble at any moment. When Ejnar’s mental state begins to deteriorate, Coster-Waldau’s sober performance defies any man-going-crazy-in-the-wilderness cliches. Sigh. If only a good cast was enough to salvage a plodding, tedious film from the snowy wreckage.
Director: Peter Flinth
Writers: Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Joe Derrick
Stars: Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Joe Cole
Release Date: March 2, 2022
Aurora Amidon is a film journalist and passionate defender of Hostel: Part II. Follow her on Twitter for her latest questionable culture takes.