THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR VICTOR SANTOS’ ‘POLAR’ AND THE NETFLIX FILM OF THE SAME NAME.
by Brendan Hodgdon. If there was ever an indie comic that deserved a top-flight film adaptation, Victor Santos’ Polar was certainly it. The stylish and evocative title offers an endless amount of great visual and conceptual hooks for a filmmaker to build upon, and the understated thematics offer a solid launching pad for deeper exploration. But now that the film has arrived via Netflix, from director Jonas Åkerlund, writer Jayson Rothwell, and star Mads Mikkelsen, the question is: did Polar get the adaptation it deserved?
Taken as a whole, the Polar film is a sizeable departure from the comic, due in large part to the opening hour that deviates in both content and tone. That first stretch of the film is wholly independent of the book, and it isn’t until the midpoint that the events of the comic actually kick off. Once we finally get to that intense action sequence though, Åkerlund and Rothwell shift sharply back to the style and substance that made Santos’ comic so great, though not without fitting in their own ideas here and there.
The establishing moments of this scene bring back the scenic stillness and moodiness of the comic after an hour of the garish, cranked-to-11 absurdity that preceded it. The context leading into the scene is different; in the comic, Black Kaiser’s lady visitor is brought to him on a snowmobile under the guise of being a sex worker, while here the renamed Duncan Vizla (Mikkelsen) picks her up as an apparently stranded driver. In both cases, the dark loneliness of the setting is tangible in both the visuals and staging.
Similarly, the slowly-encroaching danger of incoming hitmen is very similar in both versions of the story, with the film actively recreating imagery from the book in several instances (above). The difference is in the sex scene that is intercut with these moments. While the comic depicts sex between Black Kaiser and his guest as this slow, focused act, the film shows Vizla and Sindy have a comically-extended sex romp of pornographic proportions. This takes up a main portion of the sequence, closer to the beginning of the film in terms of tone and energy. But the scene still largely unfolds with the same tempo, the escalation of the sex matching the incoming danger from outside.
Once the action explodes, it hits hard in both versions. How the scene takes a turn in the comic is far more clever, as Black Kaiser notices the glint of a razor blade in his companion’s mouth and immediately kills her, while in the movie Vizla throws Sindy into the line of sniper fire… seemingly without any way of knowing it was coming? Even so, the film makes up for this by having the sniper continue to blast away trying to get Vizla, keeping the momentum going. Not to mention that Sindy, unlike her comic book counterpart, survives her initial injury and continues to be a thorn in Vizla’s side until she gets her own unique comeuppance. The comic, meanwhile, has Kaiser slip into the shadows before any more action unfolds.
At this point, the aesthetics of the comic really start to benefit the vibe of the sequence. As the other hitmen burst into the cabin, hunting for the already-hiding Kaiser, Santos begins to bring a lot more red into the background of the black-and-white, giving a strong contrast while also emphasizing the increasing violence. The film, on the other hand, maintains the same subdued color palette throughout.
Both versions of the scene continue with Kaiser/Vizla turning the tables on the sniper out in the woods. In this regard, both comic and film find creative ways for our protagonist to handle his next challenge. The comic shows Kaiser pulling out a stashed gun and picking off the sniper at range, placing the shoe firmly (and bloodily) on the other foot. In the film, Vizla races out into the woods (still naked, unlike the book) and executes the sniper up close. While the deadpan humor of Naked Murder Mikkelsen benefits the film, it is again the careful application of red in the comic pages that gives the comic a stronger personality.
It’s at this point that the film again diverges from the book. In the comic, the remaining two killers rush out of the cabin after Kaiser and pursue him into the surrounding hilly forest until Kaiser gets the drop on them. In the film, Vizla uses the sniper’s rifle to take shots at the other hitmen who remain in the cabin. In the film, this comes off as a bit repetitive, since just a few minutes before the sniper was also taking potshots at the cabin. And the sequence repeats itself once more when one of the hitmen gets clear of the cabin and comes for Vizla, and he does to the hitman what he just did to the sniper earlier. The comic’s version works primarily thanks to a change in the tempo (which shifts the context of the tension), and for making better use of the setting.
For the digressions in how they get there, both Kaiser & Vizla get the third killer in similar fashion, surprising them from tree cover and picking them off with ease. The film, again repeating itself a bit, sees Vizla take down the third hitman just like he did the second, in the same location. In the comic, Kaiser dispatches his third foe on a cliff side, while avoiding the complication of meddlesome crows along the way.
The ending of this extended face-off could not be more different between book and movie. The film sees Vizla again return to the sniper rifle to pick off the last killer, spotting her breath coming from around the corner with a thermal scope. In the comic, we see Kaiser and the last killer racing towards each other, blasting away at close range until Kaiser is lucky enough to get the last shot. At this point in the sequence the film has plateaued in tempo and energy, while the comic continues to escalate until all of Kaiser’s opponents are dead, and he’s ready to go on to his main quest.
The back half of the movie, much like this sequence, does generally follow the road map laid out by Santos’ comic. As we can see in the breakdown of this sequence, the film hedges its bets in terms of staging and energy in ways that the comic never does. Combine that with Santos’ impeccable instincts when it comes to color, and the original Polar edges out its live-action counterpart, highlighting just what made Victor Santos’ work so great in the first place.
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Read Brendan Hodgdon’s review of ‘Polar: Came from the Cold’ here.