Fair warning: The dog dies in Peter Flinth’s “Against the Ice,” a turgid survival drama based on the true account of two Danish explorers’ punishing 1909 trek to the north-eastern tip of Greenland. In fact, all of them do — not just Bjørn, the adorable sled puppy who plummets to his doom at the bottom of an Arctic crevice just a few short minutes after fresh-faced engineer Iver Iversen (Joe Cole) makes the mistake of bonding with him by name. The situation later becomes so grim that Iver begins to shoot the weakest dogs and feed their meat to the stronger ones, who will soon be eaten themselves.
These gruesome events all take place within the first 100 days of a journey that will languish for 700 more, as the naive Iver and his headstrong leader Captain Ejnar Mikkelsen (co-writer Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) are eventually reduced to lancing each other’s neck boils and fighting over the faraway women who visit their sex dreams at night.
If this all sounds like it has — or at least should have — the makings of a brutal, “The Revenant”-esque saga about men vs. nature, it turns out that Flinth has a different approach in mind. The specifics of that approach, however, are mighty hard to pin down, as “Against the Ice” doesn’t weather the agony of being stuck in a frozen hellscape for three years so much as it drifts through the snow in search of a more interesting (or Netflix-friendly) way of telling this story. In that respect, Flinth’s expedition proves even less fruitful than Iver and Mikkelsen’s. Forget “The Terror,” here comes “The Tedium.”
By the time the film starts, many of Ejnar’s men have already grown restless. They’ve been moored on the good ship Alabama for too long already, and the purpose of their voyage — to disprove the United States’ assertion that Northeast Greenland is geographically separate from the rest of the country, and therefore not Danish territory — doesn’t seem worth dying for. It doesn’t help that two people have already died for it on a previous expedition, leaving the proof of what they found in a stone cairn somewhere in a brace of frozen tundra big enough to stretch between Moscow and Rome.
Captain Ejnar, having already tested the patience of his crew, is the only one who seems willing to brave the five-month trek to the cairn and back. At least, that is, until Iver volunteers to spend some very serious one-on-one-time with his boss.
What possesses this sensible but sweetly inexperienced kid to risk his life on a suicide mission? Hero worship? A thirst for adventure? Is he motivated by patriotism, or is he running away from something back home? You’ll freeze to death waiting for an answer that never comes, as “Against the Ice” would rather belabor Iver’s childlike innocence — and play it against Ejnar’s grizzled, borderline Herzogian determination — than meaningfully develop either of these characters beyond their most basic archetypes.
The march over the icecap unfolds across a flurry of short, clipped fragments that cede most of the drama to the terrain. The landscape is vast, the snowdrifts are steep, and the sense of isolation is profound as the relationship between the film’s lead characters is shallow. Coster-Waldau and Joe Derrick’s script smartly underplays the whole “hardass father figure gets his heart softened by guileless kid” dynamic (knowing full well that the survivalism of the movie’s second half won’t allow for such broad sentimentality), but “Against the Ice” struggles for something to replace it.
Occasional peeks into Ejnar’s pathological need to succeed threaten a more nuanced portrait of wills and ways — “You never think you can’t make it,” he says, “you always believe there’ll be a way” — but and yet the only truly revealing conversation between he and Iver is a heart-to-heart about venereal disease.
If the spotty first half of “Against the Ice” strains for momentum, the second half — which finds our wayfarers returning to the Alabama only to discover that it’s been abandoned by the crew — is so moribund that Flinth can’t help but cut back to Copenhagen, where Coster-Waldau’s “Game of Thrones” co-star Charles Dance scowls through a few scenes as the government official in charge of the expedition. Coupled with an escalating series of very silly dream sequences (and one encounter with a CGI polar bear so fake-looking it seems like it’s supposed to be unreal), Flinth’s approach can’t help but feel counterintuitively erratic for a film about two men stuck in the same place for so long.
In fairness, Iver and Ejnar do take a brief trip away from the hull of the Alabama at one point, but they don’t leave a note. You should always leave a note. They learn that lesson the hard way. The rest of us don’t have to.
“Against the Ice” is now streaming on Netflix.