“Polaris” is a breathtaking, apocalyptic story told in a visual language that will mesmerize many while leaving some out in the cold.
The urge to compare Polaris to Mad Max (it’s been dubbed “Mad Max on ice”) is inevitable, from the film’s apocalyptic themes to its powerful women warriors, gear-punk aesthetic, and striking costume design — a metal and leather union of nature and man’s ingenuity.
But make no mistake; this is quite a singular piece of filmmaking from writer/director Kirsten Carthew that differentiates itself in far more ways than it evokes its cinematic influences.
The year is 2144, and the world has been thrust into a perpetual state of winter. A new ice age has created an apocalyptic wasteland, leaving few survivors and seemingly no men (that part is never explained).
We first meet the young Sumi (Viva Lee), a one-eyed girl on the precipice of her teenage years, gleefully rolling around on a snow-covered carpet with her adopted polar bear mother (Agee, the only trained polar bear in North America) and sleeping under the tranquilizing light of the Aurora Borealis.
With a deep connection to nature and finely honed animalistic instincts, Sumi thrives in the stark white wilderness, as she and her mom are intuitively guided by the north star known as Polaris.
The journey is interrupted when Sumi, whose relationship with the trees runs so deep it’s preternatural, hears her beloved evergreens crying in the forest and discovers a group of hunters chopping them down.
Once spotted, the hunters capture the girl and lock her in a cage.
Having been raised by a polar bear for most of her life, after her human mom was killed in a raid, Sumi doesn’t speak. She can only communicate in primal grunts and guttural noises. But she’s imbued with many other skills.
Ferociously brave, cunning, and powerful, Sumi is a force of nature.
And it isn’t long before she’s turned the tables on her captors and escaped, turning the alabaster terrain crimson in the process.
We also learn that Sumi is connected to the bright, purple light of Polaris on a much deeper level, so much so that it seems to have imbued her with magical gifts. After killing her captor, she rips the marauder’s eye out of its socket, places it into her own empty socket, and is immediately gifted with a fully functioning eyeball and fully restored vision.
Though clearly resourceful, Sumi is now completely alone, separated from her mother, and set adrift in a merciless wasteland full of roving marauders with nefarious intent.
On a treacherous journey back to Polaris — the guiding light she believes will lead her back to her mom — she is met with the best and worst of human nature.
When she comes across an old woman (Muriel Dutil) living in a makeshift shelter, she’s naturally trepidatious. But the kindness of the woman soothes her fears and gives her a sense of comfort and safety. Though they can’t communicate with words, the melodic song of a harmonica bridges the gap between them and serves as its own language of human compassion.
With the help of the woman, Sumi learns she can summon the light of Polaris by clapping her balled-up hands together; hands tattooed with a symbol for the star. This allows her to send a distress signal to her mom.
In this frozen wasteland, it seems the remaining population has chosen one of two paths.
There are those, like Sumi and the old woman, who returned to nature, choosing to live a simple life, taking only what they need from the land and embracing a new age of technology-free eco-harmony.
Others, known as Morads, built a new power structure in the wake of civilization. This brutal tribe of female warriors continues to prey on the weak and rape and pillage the land — having learned nothing from the catastrophic consequences of man’s destructive greed and selfishness.
In sharp contrast to Sumi’s earlier travels atop the back of a polar bear and her communion with the trees, the Morads cling to the man-made, technological world, racing across the snowy landscape in snowmobiles hooked up to large gas canisters while draped in metal armor and carrying an arsenal of lethal weapons.
The kind woman sheltering Sumi survives by providing gas to the Morads, a necessary evil.
One day, a Morad shows up for fuel carrying precious stolen cargo, a frozen girl (Khamisa Wilsher) in a cryo-capsule dressed in advanced-tech green armor. It’s clear the girl is from somewhere far away, with resources unavailable to Morads and others from Sumi’s world. There’s a sense she may be an alien species, though her origin and backstory are never explained.
All we know is that she is valuable, and much like Sumi, she’s been taken against her will.
As Sumi clandestinely examines the cargo, she is spotted by the marauder, and her life is immediately in peril. The brave woman, who has become her friend and protector, comes to her rescue. But the battle ends in a horrifying and heartbreaking tragedy.
Sumi once again finds herself alone, surrounded by danger.
But she again summons her inner power to restore life to the frozen girl (never named in the film) through equally brutal and beautiful means.
With ruthless hunters on her trail, Sumi and the frozen girl traverse the harsh elements — developing a language-less bond of trust and friendship — on a journey to return Sumi home. The final scenes are truly transfixing, including a stunning, balletic underwater sequence that took my breath away.
POLARIS is an extraordinary achievement, a startlingly uncommon vision with tremendous heart and powerful themes worthy of exploration.
However, many will struggle to connect with the film’s unconventional choices and obtuse approach to storytelling.
There are few words spoken. And those that are of an unrecognizable, made-up language presented without subtitles. This ensures the audience feels as isolated and unsure as the protagonist herself.
It’s a bold choice, and it works incredibly well to create a world that feels foreign and enigmatic. But it also requires patience on the part of the viewer and demands you watch with undivided attention and a willingness to let go of expectations.
Without the benefit of dialogue, Polaris requires its actors to tell stories with body language and facial expressions, and Lee (in her debut performance) more than rises to the occasion, giving a captivating and highly physical performance.
Carthew drops the audience in the middle of an unexplained mythos, raising far more questions than she answers.
And she’s more concerned with establishing a mood and eliciting a visceral emotional response than she is with telling a straightforward story.
Exasperated by the absence of dialogue, Polaris often feels more like a series of rapidly paced vignettes than a conventional narrative. And that feeling that we are, like Sumi, merely nomads meandering from one moment or interaction to the next may alienate some viewers.
This film doesn’t shy away from its deeper political message about environmental devastation and a man-made climate crisis or its pointed commentary on mankind’s worst tendencies. It’s no accident that Carthew places the audience in an arctic backdrop that threatens to become ground zero of impending real-world environmental catastrophe.
Sumi herself is a Mother Earth allegory — both a spiritual beacon and guiding light and a savage, animalistic predator when cornered or forced to defend the innocent, either of the human or natural worlds.
Polaris is a wildly impressive independent film that feels both stripped down and expansive, aided considerably by the majestic, endless white terrain of the Canadian Yukon.
This is an impossibly sublime setting where the land and sky appear to bleed into each other, effectively erasing the horizon and creating an immersive environment that’s equal parts majestic and unforgiving.
The score is ethereal, almost meditative, luring you into a sense of serenity before traumatizing with jarring violence. It’s the kind of barbarism revealing the relentless greed of mankind that perseveres even in the face of apocalyptic annihilation.
And yet, in the face of such unspeakable horror, kindness also survives. And it’s in that underlying message of hope where Polaris truly shines like the North Star.