By DEIRDRE CRIMMINS
Starring Viva Lee, Muriel Dutil, and Dinah Gaston
Written and Directed by Kirsten Carthew
Creating new mythology is a heavy lift. The myths we commonly hold dear have evolved over the ages and are honed in such a way to defy time and theology. POLARIS sets out to create its own story of the inception of the stars, with mixed results.
The ambitious film takes place in the year 2144 when, surprisingly, polar bears not only continue to exist after our environmental woes, but they also occasionally raise human children. Sumi (Viva Lee) is a young girl who survives thanks to her polar bear mama. The rough, frozen terrain is relentless. However, the few humans the pair encounter are an even bigger threat.
When Sumi is violently separated from her polar protector, she is treated with the same level of kindness current humanity shows bears; She is thrown into a cage and dragged away from the only family she knows.
Yet, Sumi is not without her own cunning. She manages to break free from her cage, kill her captor and escape into the woods to get as much space between her and the evil that harmed her. Before going on the run, she takes an eye from the woman she just bested to repair her face.
This is where POLARIS begins to create its own world with its own rules. As if its future setting and post-apocalyptic snowy tundra and human-animal kinship were not enough to establish the singular cinematic world of the film, POLARIS also sprinkles in otherworldly powers and magical processes to enhance its realm. Sumi is able to take a dead woman’s eye as her own with little more than an extraction and a shove. In later scenes, we see that this is not merely limited to Sumi and that major organs are available for these easy-peasy transplants, too.
Even with a few whimsical moments sprinkled throughout, the overall vibe of POLARIS is gritty and violent. Humans are rarely kind and always self-serving. When Sumi finds a friend in an older woman who plays harmonica and feeds her, their bond is short-lived. The contrast between brutality and mythology is a tough line to walk, and director Kirsten Carthew sure tries her best to strike that balance.
What never quite congeals is how all of these elements come together to create the bespoke lore of their world. This is partially due to the near-complete lack of dialogue in the film. Certain characters do talk a bit and seem to understand one another. However, this is not in a recognizable language and is not subtitled. The Tribe, Hush and A Quiet Place are just a few examples that show that dialogue can be optional in film, but POLARIS is never as successful as it needs to be to get its message across. Instead, it is a beautiful, violent and compelling tale that feels like it is shoehorning in its desire to create something artificial outside of that world.
When taken for its visuals, incredible performances and world-building, POLARIS is a worthy entry in post-apocalyptic cinema’s hallowed halls. Frustratingly, the extra layers of forced fables get in the way of its ascending to greatness.