Review: Nikolaj Coster-Waldau Stars as a Moody Explorer in the Frigid Arctic of Against the Ice

The movie industry never seems to tire of making films about people traveling to and/or stuck in the Arctic. Many of these works are quite good, including Against the Ice, one of the most introspective versions of this story yet, one that explores the psychological damage done to people when they are left alone, fairly certain that death is just around the corner. From director Peter Flinth (Nobel’s Last Will) and adapted by star Nikolaj Coster-Waldau & Joe Derrick (based on the book Two Against the Ice by Ejnar Mikkelsen, whom Coster-Waldau plays in the film), Against the Ice centers on a 1909 journey to the Arctic led by Captain Mikkelsen, whose expedition was sent to look for any signs of a previous mission sent to the northern ends of Greenland.

Sent by the Danish government, the expedition took place when Greenland was still a colony of Denmark. The United States wanted to lay claim to Northeast Greenland, which it said was broken off from the rest of the country by water. The “Denmark Expedition” was sent to disprove this theory and lay claim to the entirely of Greenland. When Mikkelsen’s ship gets caught in the ice, he asks for a volunteer to accompany him and two sled dog teams to finish the mission or find some proof left by the previous expedition that Greenland is, in fact, not broken into two pieces of land. The only crew member to volunteer is inexperienced mechanic Iver Iversen (Joe Cole), who learns how to work with the dogs in addition to as much as he can about journeying across perilous terrain.

While the dangers of the trip are well represented and executed, the rest power of Against the Ice is in the way the two actors bond and reveal the places in their psyches were cracks begin to form. Iversen’s lack of experience costs the pair deeply, but Mikkelsen’s strict upbringing and detachment to everything but the job at hand makes him vulnerable as well. He beings to have delusions of Naja (Heida Reed), a woman he knew and cared for back home. He has lengthy conversations with her that drive him to make irrational decisions. Of course, there are also the average, everyday nightmares of the region as well, like starvation, extreme cold, fatigue, and the occasional polar bear attack.

The two do find the proof they are seeking about halfway through the film, but the real danger comes when they return to where the ship is supposed to be and find the crew gone and pieces of the ship (mostly crushed by ice flows) manufactured into a makeshift cabin, built for the returning heroes and loaded with food. Their assumption is that eventually a ship would come by and rescue them, but brief flashes to back in Denmark reveal a government official (Charles Dance) who makes the decision not to spend any more money on the Greenland mission or any form of rescue, leaving these two men effectively stranded.

Director Flinth and his team have done a remarkable job re-creating the Arctic environments to the point where you’ll probably need multiple blankets in order to watch Against the Ice. Coster-Waldau’s moody, mission-driven personality is nicely contrasted with Cole’s more optimistic and clear-headed approach to things. He wants them to become friends, partly because it will inspire them both to not only survive but look out for the other person when times get especially rough. The sometimes eerie visuals get across the idea that there are times where the men simply don’t know what they can believe, making the entire situation all the more dangerous than it already is. The film has a few genuine thrills, but its primary concern is character building and making us invested in the question of who might live or die. Aside from dragging briefly in spots, Against the Ice is a worthy entry in the humans-versus-nature sub-genre of adventure movies.

The film is now streaming on Netflix.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet
Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for
Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and
filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a
frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine.
He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently
owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for
the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer
for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the
city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.

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