Polaris is aggressively weird. A young girl named Sumi (Viva Lee, Deadly Class) with one eye, gets separated from her polar bear companion in the frozen wilderness. In her search to find her furry guardian, she encounters a boreal spruce tree that warbles and moves animatedly, appearing to communicate with her. And this is just in the first ten minutes.
Yet, for all that Polaris is weird, the Canadian-made film is also surprisingly accessible. The buzz around Polaris has been incredible. And not without good reason. Directed by Kirsten Carthew (Fish Out of Water, The Sun At Midnight), Polaris opened Fantasia Film Festival this year. Upon seeing the dystopian fantasy thriller at this year’s local annual Saskatoon Fantastic Film Festival, the co-director Jeff Drake informed us that it currently had a 100% rating on RottenTomatoes.com.
And it’s not hard to see why. Everything from the cinematography to the storytelling is all top-notch quality. Sometimes when I come home from movies at SFFF I like to see how much of a crazy person I sound like telling my loved ones about the stories I’ve just seen on screen for the past couple of hours. Polaris is one of those.
The year is 2144 on Frozen World. Magic, music, and strange post-apocalyptic trappings such as tires and metal and ski-doos are commonplace in an otherwise subarctic landscape with the last lingering trees of the boreal forest on the dreary, overcast horizon. And lots and lots of snow.
Polaris evoked a lot of other movies for me. Many viewers will feel right at home watching this film. The film has a very ‘Mad Max in the snow’ feel that felt romantic in a way. Mad Max, but on ski-doos. The high energy and physicality of the young BIPOC lead also reminded me of Prey, the latest in the Predator franchise, another great movie I saw this year. Both Sumi from Polaris and Naru from Prey had these complex relationships with their lands that both actors portrayed in such a fascinating way.
Since Sumi was so connected to her land, it made seeing her amazement at the more “gearpunk” aspects of the film that much more meaningful, like ski-doos that had a deer skull hood ornament.
Keeping the cast list small and the runtime short in Polaris are both intriguing moves on the part of Carthew. They’re both part of what makes Polaris work so well. The choice to have an unidentified language that was not subtitled made for some pretty incredible immersion. It’s a credit to the length of Polaris that the storytelling never feels rushed. But I feel that in Polaris’ case, the story is also as much about the journey as it is about moving the plot from one point to the next.
For me to reveal too much of the story here would be a disservice to the film. It’s sufficient enough to say that in its 89 minutes, the film has plenty to say about human innovation, showing us junkyard landscapes with rusted, junked vehicles and even a junked plane at one point.
But what have we accomplished, and what do we continue to accomplish, with all of humankind’s innovation? Polaris wrestles with contentious issues such as deforestation and the harming of Earth’s precious natural resources. The “bad” people have metal and gas. They use their many deadly weapons to kill for pleasure. The “good” people kill for self-defence or food, and they are often unarmed or lightly armed. The great part about Polaris is that it presents us with these ideas without being sanctimonious. It could almost be a sequel to Snowpiercer, another film it reminded me of.
This review would be absolutely remiss without a nod toward Agee, the majestic polar bear who played Mama Bear. She was a pure highlight of the film for me. In giving this film an all-star rating, I think back to how in Carthew’s Q&A she gave by Zoom after the film at SFFF, Kirsten told us Agee’s diet included but was not limited to, a 24-pack of Costco croissants. Only a Canadian-raised polar bear could eat that much.
I caught Polaris at the Saskatoon Fantastic Film Festival. SFFF runs from November 18-26th at the Broadway Theatre in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. It’s not yet available to stream