There are lots of "best of" Svalbard movie listicles, all mostly consisting of the same "major project" titles released during the past few decades of moviemaking here. But some of those have no place on any "best" list. Which often means lesser-known filmmakers who overcome the arctic elements to capture gripping stories get lost in the whiteout of bright lights.
So with the help of people who've lived in Svalbard and/or been on either side of the camera over many years, here are twelve movies and TV shows worth watching that are NOT "The Golden Compass" (Rotten Tomatoes score: 42%) or "Fortitude".
Most of these were filmed entirely in Svalbard, which helps them make the cut due to the authenticity factor, but some such as major motion pictures were also filmed on studio sets (especially the indoor scenes). Some documentaries, in particular, also feature other areas. All are available via commercial streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon, and a few can be seen free in whole or in part at legal sites such as topdocumentaryfilms.com.
Table of content:
1. Operajson Arktis
3. An Arctic Space Odyssey
4. Kompani Spitsbergen
5. Flight of the Eagle
6. The Hunt: In the Grip of Seasons
7. Frozen Planet
8. The Ghost of Piramida
9. Kjærlighetens Kjøtere
10. Orions Belte
11. Svalbard Minute-By-Minute
1. Operasjon Arktis (2014)
Since this list is admittedly light on Hollywood-friendly films, we're putting this all-audiences release where readers can see it quickly. It is, according to a Hollywood Reporter review, "a captivating throwback to innocent Saturday-matinee fare that tells a gripping survival story against a backdrop of breathtaking frozen landscapes. It also has beautiful polar bear footage and the cutest white husky you'll ever see sitting down to a plate of meatballs."
The plot, based on a 1971 novel, involves three siblings going through family/peer tensions who hide aboard a helicopter they think is bound for their father's hometown on the mainland, but instead end up stranded in the wilderness of Svalbard.
The original tale gets plenty of Hollywood adjustments - the main character is a girl instead of a boy and the predictable ending is "heartwarming" in the uber-saccharine sense. But the journey there is gripping popcorn fare that even local families are known to re-stream after a day of exploring the real-life outdoors. Part of it was filmed in the Canadian Arctic, but there's no obvious "OMG, there are trees in the frame" or other embarrassingly inauthentic footage.
2. Bjørnøya (2014)
This is another "family" drama, but this time in real life. Not to be confused with the 1979 film "Bear Island" set during WWII, "Bjørnøya" follows three brothers on a quixotic journey to Svalbard's southernmost island for what they hope is the ultimate surfing adventure.
Their character traits are established during preparatory scenes where they do things such as dig through supermarket dumpsters for all their expedition's food. This sets up an amusing (and not overly preachy green-minded) tone to be expected for would-be Arctic Surfer Dudes.
Sure enough, they learn and sometimes love their exploits once they reach their destination and discover Mother Nature can be both friend and foe. But then a plot twist of the kind only likely in unscripted real life occurs. Resulting in a final project far different than the brothers hoped, but arguably more substantive for viewers.
3. An Arctic Space Odyssey (2013)
It's an utterly epic tale: a lone man on leave from the Norwegian Air Force is sent to manage a high-tech satellite station and its crew of 25 men in Svalbard's northernmost settlement of Ny-Ålesund, where a historic space launch is planned during the height of the Cold War in 1967. But the Soviet Union accuses him and the station of espionage, injecting them into a battle of international tensions. In addition to the tensions of overseeing his crew through the awful isolation and hardship of the Svalbard winter while delivering the all-important project.
4. Kompani Spitsbergen (2018)
There's clearly a fascination with reality TV shows set in the Arctic. So of course Svalbard has seen projects where locals are followed around by camera crews for months on end. This 10-episode series’ aired on Norway's TV2 in 2018.
It is the best showing of current-day life here featuring a small group of locals whose drama needs no artificial hype. They're the last remaining coal miners in Longyearbyen after their predecessors founded and were the foundation of the town for more than a century. But nearly everything has since shut down and nearly everyone laid off as the world moves into an era where coal is an increasingly dirty word.
As a result, the collapse of mining is changing the town's society even faster than the many impacts of climate change occurring at the same time. Climate change having caused fatal home-crushing avalanches and put the foundational stability of many homes in peril due to thawing soil.
The show's one detraction is strong corporate-aligned messaging from the state-owned coal producer Store Norske Spitsbergen Kullkompani (who put the company in "company town") in terms of presenting agreeable content. But not to the extent of shying away from the controversies of continuing Norway's last operating coal mine in what is supposedly the country's most pristine place.
5. Flight Of The Eagle (1982)
Back in 1982 some misguided misfit adventurers met an icy and otherworldly doom in the cult classic "The Thing," set in a fictional realm of Antarctica. That same year a Swedish filmmaker resurrected a real-life trio of misguided misfit adventurers in Svalbard who in 1897 met a slow and chilling doom. Their struggle lasted months when their attempt to reach the North Pole by balloon ended with a crash landing on the archipelago's most remote island.
This retelling of the expedition led by S. A. Andrée got an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. According to a critic at The New York Times, it "is so good that it makes one want to know more, especially how much of it is documented by Andree's diaries and how much of it is invented by the novelist and film makers."
But that question – and distractions such as flashback scenes meant to heighten personality dramas – don't deter from a gripping and growingly hopeless viewing experience where "toward the end of the expedition, the personal drama of the three men, as they are overtaken by fate, is detailed with an intensity that is as moving as the earlier sequences are spectacular."
6. The Hunt: In The Grip of Seasons: Arctic (2015)
Best. Bear. Stalking. Seal. Scene. Ever. That should be all anyone needs to know to watch this episode in a seven-part BBC documentary. The hour-long episode tracks three animals – polar bears and Arctic foxes in Svalbard, and wolves in Canada – trying to adapt to hunting in changing conditions, and equals a number of top-tier documentaries on the subject.
7. Frozen Planet (2011)
This is what will immediately come to mind for most Svalbard residents when hearing the above phrase "seven-part BBC documentary", and for good reason. The series that won four Emmy Awards in the U.S. features stellar camerawork, production and storytelling that makes it among the best of what it is: highbrow edutainment for nature lovers who don't view science with suspicion. It unfortunately speaks volumes BBC made the final episode optional for syndication because its theme is the impacts of man-made climate change.
After the introductory opening episode, the series establishes a storyline that holds up to multi-hour viewing by progressing through the four seasons in the polar regions. With the second-to-last episode examining human presence at the far ends of the Earth. One other strike in terms of this particular list: the series is a comprehensive look at the Arctic and Antarctic, meaning aspects of Svalbard are portrayed in each episode, but it's not the prime focus.
Finally, unless you're still watching region-specific DVDs make sure you watch the UK version narrated by the legendary nature pundit David Attenborough rather than the U.S. version narrated by Alec Baldwin.
8. The Ghost of Piramida (2012)
There's a wealth of tales in Svalbard's two Russian settlements yet to be suitably told in fact and fiction. But one of more creative and certainly entertaining of numerous documentaries by artists of various types is this visit to Pyramiden by the Danish indie-rock band Efterklang. The mission of the trip being to capture sounds they would use as "instruments" on an album named after what's now the world's northernmost ghost town.
The trio's nine-day visit is longer than most video projects, offering non-scholarly overviews of what the band calls a "Communist mini-utopia" when the Soviet mining city was at its peak from the 1950s-70s. So there's ample opportunity for such material during the hour-long documentary.
The abandoned settlement is now the setting for oddities ranging from architect school contests to space invasion video games set far into the future. All of which adds to the interesting nature of the band's (digital) sampling and collecting of sounds from banging on decaying buildings, discarded industrial equipment and rusting mining facilities.
This, of course, adds intrigue to the resulting music itself in trying to discern how those sounds are being used in the mix with more conventional instruments. Assuming, of course, you enjoy the band's music (reviewers generally offer kind remarks).
9. Kjærlighetens Kjøtere (Zero Kelvin) (1995)
When Svalbard's best-known film producer Jason Roberts was asked what he considers the best Svalbard film, he named this 1995 adventure/drama involving three men of divergent personalities trapped in a small cabin during the Arctic winter.
While that gives the movie instant cred, there is one hitch that puts it near the end of the list: while filmed in Svalbard, the story is set in Greenland. That said, not even the cabin dwellers might notice if the building magically switched from one country's desolated icy spot to the other.
Set in 1925, it's a psychological and physical showcase involving a youthful urbane poet who leaves a girlfriend beyond to overwinter with a crusty trapper and a scientist. If you can't see the tensions coming from a mile away, it's because you're already lost in the blizzard of abuse Mother Nature supplies. Something to watch when you want to appreciate both movies and Svalbard in high art form.
10. Orions Belte (1985)
Yes, it's included, even though it's deliberately at the end instead of the beginning as with most lists. This 1985 political thriller following the misadventures of three Norwegian seamen and their entanglements with a Russian communications station is probably the most-frequent answer to the question "name a movie based in Svalbard."
It's received plenty of critical acclaim for its Cold War tension and cinematography, and was ranked as Norway's 10th most important film by Dagbladet in 2007. Increasing tensions between Norway and Russia in recent years add a renewed relevance to the narrative. But there's also plenty of criticism and controversy about the plot and production. Aftenposten's mostly favorable review, for instance, dinged the acting as amateurish and the latter portion a letdown after peaking at midpoint.
An ordinary viewer who has lived in Svalbard for nearly 50 years says the film is enjoyable, but the fact key locations were obviously filmed elsewhere is a distraction. But such concerns hardly matter to outsiders, who generally offer near-top ratings in reviews.
11. Svalbard Minute-By-Minute (2019)
A month before the pandemic struck, Norwegian national broadcaster NRK debuted perhaps the most-acclaimed of its famous "slow TV" projects. An ambitious multi-camera and multimedia virtual vacation lasting 221 hours aboard Hurtigruten's 335-passenger M/S Spitsbergen.
The show is the entirety of an idyllic nine-day voyage around Spitsbergen aboard a new expedition cruise ship equipped with custom Arctic-oriented passenger and environmental fittings. The real trip costs about 6400 Euro, but of course people weren't able to go at any price during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Unlike, say, other slow TV such as watching a fireplace on your TV or computer screen for days on end, the cruise filmed during the summer of 2018 features a variety of viewing points from the vessel, shore excursions in the wild and other memorable moments.
For those who find the idea of that much couch sailing a bit queasy, NRK offers easily selectable "highlight" videos such as a 40-minute condensed overview, animal sightings, memorable landscapes, hour-by-hour sections and more.
Hurtigruten's reputation has taken a beating in global headlines for actions deemed illegal and questionable concerning outbreaks of the coronavirus on some ships during the pandemic. Most notably one that made two voyages around Svalbard, though with no landings in the main settlements. Nonetheless, this is an experience from the best of the company's modern transition from a somewhat spartan coastal ferry service into a full-blown cruise tourism operator. The company has been able to deliver a far more authentic Arctic experience than the megaships who pass through here during the abbreviated summers before returning to the likes of the Caribbean.
12. Klaus (2019)
If you're at least reasonably familiar with "real" Svalbard, perhaps by watching some of the above, you owe it doubly to yourself to watch this instant classic of an animated holiday special on Netflix.
The film is it outrageously funny on its own merits, with of course the requisite holiday heart-touching conclusion. But the Svalbard savvy reap far more rewatchability rewards, with an infinite list of ways the cartoon gets absolutely anything and everything so completely and bizarrely wrong about the place.
The cartoon Svalbard, according to a Hollywood Reporter review, is "a wasteland whose residents all hate each other, where violent feuds are the only form of social interaction, and where, if you were to stumble across kids building a snowman, they’d be pallid Addams-styled tots who’ve used carrots to stab the thing instead of giving him a nose.”
It's tempting to call it a reverse Grinch tale since it's basically about a good-hearted newcomer trying to bestow gifts (and other mail) upon a Whoville-In-Hell. Although instead of a too-small heart the main guy Jesper is a spoiled rich kid sent from the mainland by his dad to learn the family trade by going postal.
22 July (2018)
This 2018 big-screen production available on Netflix about Norway's deadliest terrorist attack has nothing to do with Svalbard per se. But the main characters are two teenage brothers from Longyearbyen.
What happened to these movies…?
When The Light Comes (1998)
This 1998 adventure/romance is on everybody else's list, but falls short here because, as a reviewer put it, "without the landscape of Spitsbergen the film about the relationship between Lars and Ellen would have been just boring." Adequately watchable to pass an evening with.
Ice Town: Life On The Edge (2016)
This 10-episode BBC docudrama that follows 10 Longyearbyen residents for eight months in 2015-16 is the "best-known" reality show mentioned above, thanks to its wide international distribution and frequent repeat broadcasts.
But it does a mediocre job with potentially spectacular source material. It takes place during one of the town's most drastic periods in recent years, but exaggerates personas whose stories would be more intriguing au natural, and can't resist cheesy reality show cliches including a stereotyped halfwit narrator and vapid mood music.
Also, for whatever bizarre reason the only on-demand video is via iTunes in Canada. (Full disclosure: the author of this article was one of the show's "characters," but he's also been in numerous other film projects that in his evaluation range from great to awful).
Livet Er Svalbard (2005)
Now this is a reality TV show. The premise is nearly the same as "Ice Town," with Norwegian broadcaster NRK following 10 or so residents for six months in the spring of 2003. But the difference between the NRK and BBC series is roughly equal to Gordon Ramsay's tastefully chef-oriented "Kitchen Nightmares" in the UK vs. the profane character-manipulating compost in the U.S.
Alas, its online access seems limited to what are, at best, "grey" sites legally and there are no subtitles (so no instant translation for non-Norwegian speakers).
Ugh…there aren't enough words for the sting this three-season TV psychodrama about a Svalbard community that Is Not Named Longyearbyen inflicts. But here's a few from the very long-linked article: "Throughout the first season's 11 episodes the locals wander about killing and pummeling each other, stealing relics and expensive equipment, going on drunken shooting binges, and generally acting in ways that make viewers think everyone deserves to be locked up at some point.
And while some are – always the wrong ones, naturally – nobody’s ever charged, let alone convicted of anything. Maybe that explains the "there has never been a violent crime here" claim that's sort of imported from reality. But we really don’t care much about that, because the far more twisted thing is: what is up with all those trees, seeing as how there are none here in real life?
And Some Final Fun Facts
- James Bond and Jason Bourne made trips to Svalbard which filmmakers tried to keep top-secret ("he's really in Iceland"). Meanwhile, some of the most famous TV footage of "real life" Svalbard residents really was filmed in Iceland (hint: all those trees are a dead giveway).
- Then there's that "Svalbard" polar bear family actually filmed at a glorified zoo far away for a famous documentary series. And who knows how many zombies filmed for what we dearly hope aren't documentaries.
- The icy archipelago is an amazingly fertile area for moviemakers, but seeing things like an invisible car in a chase scene inside an ice palace in "Die Another Day" make it clear some of their minds are in the weeds. But those seeking savvy Svalbard cinema can sometimes find themselves scavenging like, um, a starving polar bear whose usual hunting grounds have been lost to climate change.