There’s a trenchant, funny academic novel by Don DeLillo called “White Noise.” Unfortunately, this movie isn’t based on it, but rather on an original idea by scripter Niall Johnson. In the old days before cable and satellite dishes, when we pulled down network TV with rooftop antennas, reception was always plagued by what was called ghosting–double and triple images. This supernatural thriller is about genuinely ghostly figures and voices that literally come through television screens (and radio speakers). It’s called Electronic Voice Phenomenon (or EVP)–the theory that communication from the dead reaches us embedded in the hissing and background static that’s a natural part of radio and TV broadcasts. But the picture is reminiscent the old form of broadcast “ghosting” in that it’s just too blurry, disjointed and unfocused to afford much pleasure. In the end “White Noise” will probably just serve as background filler for some heavy snoring.
Michael Keaton, doing a pleasant but undistinguished ordinary-guy turn, stars as Jonathan Rivers, an architect whose author-wife Anna (Chandra West, pretty but nondescript) is killed in what’s determined to be a tragic accident when her car swerves off a treacherous road and careens down a riverbank. The bereft widower is shortly visited by portly Raymond Price (Ian McNeice), a sedulous EVP investigator, who informs him that he’s captured Anna’s voice on his receiver and invites Jonathan to hear the message. Initially doubtful, Rivers is quickly convinced, and before long he’s become obsessed with contacting his wife again. He sets up a battery of equipment, in the process largely ignoring his job and his young son (luckily the kid’s mother–Rivers’ first wife–is around to take up the slack), and–helped by Sarah Tate (Deborah Kara Unger), who had gotten into touch with her deceased fiancé through EVP–he not only presses on but, following in Price’s footsteps, becomes a comfort to others, delivering messages that he hears from the beyond to their intended recipients. But things soon take a disquieting turn. Not only does Price die under suspicious circumstances–amid suggestions that dark forces were threatening him from the other side for meddling with EVP–but Rivers begins receiving messages from people not yet deceased (in one case heroically rescuing a young child by taking action on one of them) and is warned by a medium and by Anna that he is in danger. At this point “White Noise” morphs rather absurdly into a serial-killer movie that makes very little sense even by the extremely lax standards of the genre; and when a villain is finally revealed, he’s dragged in from so far in left field that you may even forget he’d made an earlier appearance.
Keaton and Unger make it through all the nonsense with straight faces and an impressively serious demeanor, under the circumstances, and McNeice–one of those British character actors whose face you’ll undoubtedly recognize even if you never knew his name, is suitably intense in the sort of slightly-cracked scientist role that Ian Holm used to play every few months but is now too big to take on. Director Geoffrey Sax, working closely with cinematographer Chris Seager, manages to generate some general creepiness, but never much tension or suspense, and very few scares.
“White Noise” is crammed with shots of monitor screens filled with nothing but dancing snow, and so pretty much seems a movie about poor television reception–something you can probably get for free at home, usually when your cable conks out at the most inconvenient moment. It certainly doesn’t warrant seeing on the big screen. If you’re interested, wait for it to appear on the tube–where in quality as well as content it obviously belongs. The last line delivered by Keaton in the picture is simply “I’m sorry”–words he might as well be delivering directly to the audience.