Another movie based on a graphic novel (by Greg Rucka and Steve Lieber), “Whiteout” in an Antarctic-set murder mystery that might have played well on the printed page but emerges as a slushy mess on the screen.
Kate Beckinsale stars as Carrie Stetko, a US Marshal stationed at a scientific base in Antarctica. Shortly before she’s scheduled to leave the post, along with most of the workers, before the first winter storm rumbles in and leads to six months of darkness, she’s called on to investigate a corpse found sprawled on some distant ice. It turns out to be the body of a geologist from a small outpost assigned to look for meteor fragments, and when she travels there to question his colleagues, she finds another dead body and an ax-wielding killer whose face is helpfully obscured by goggles and fur-lined hood.
Carrie has to work her way through a slew of suspects to get to the truth, which turns out to have something to do with the cargo a Soviet transport plane was carrying when it crashed into the ice in 1957. Is the villain bland station chief Sam Murphy (Shawn Doyle)? Or solicitous pilot Delfy (Columbus Short)? Or hotshot Aussie wingman Russell Haden (Alex O’Loughlin)? Or Carrie’s buddy, the acerbic but sensitive Dr. Fury (Tom Skerritt)? Or could it be handsome U.N. investigator Robert Pryce (Gabriel Macht), who suddenly shows up and threatens to highjack the case? Or might it be a combination of them, or somebody else entirely? As if all this weren’t bad enough, Carrie is still struggling with a traumatic incident from her past—which is revealed to us in a series of visually-warped flashbacks that intermittently punctuate the action. Yet another flashback occurs when the last survivor of the meteor outpost—and another suspect—Rubin (Jesse Todd) shows up and explains part of the mystery behind the actions of his crew.
Adapters Jon and Erich Hoeber and Chad and Carey Hayes leave no cliché untouched in trying to ratchet up the tension as they unfold the plot, and director Dominic Sena demonstrates his awareness of every visual convention of the genre as he plows his way through the mass of misdirection, red herrings and false leads they’ve assembled. Meanwhile John Frizzel’s score works overtime to pump some energy into the result.
But it’s all for naught. Despite being set in a vast wasteland, the picture is claustrophobic both inside the cramped quarters of the camps (or that buried airplane) and outside in the ice and snow. That’s because so many of the exterior action scenes are conducted in literal blizzard conditions, with the characters largely obscured by blinding wind and snow, trying to remain standing by clinging to ropes for balance. These sequences go on at inordinate length, and since it’s virtually impossible to tell who’s who or where they’re trying to go, the effect is both confusing and dull. At least “30 Days of Night,” the snowbound thriller set in Alaska, boasted vampires with a big, bad plan; this picture just has a poor cousin to every knife-carrying serial killer ever committed to celluloid, and even after he’s been dispatched in one of those hard-to-see blizzard fights, there’s another reel with a further revelation that any astute viewer will have seen coming for quite a while, even if Carrie doesn’t. (Besides which, you’re left wondering why that Soviet plane would have been carrying what it was carrying in the first place. Discuss among yourselves.)
The cast doesn’t bring much heat to the party. Beckinsale makes a boring, one-note Stetko; she does display an impressive torso in the opening scene, when she’s shown stripping and showering—is there anything young males appreciate more than a bit of purely gratuitous voyeurism?—but once clothed she’s far less interesting, glumly serious and tediously troubled by her past. (The big revelation in those flashbacks falls flat—quite literally.) As to the suspects, they’re little better. Skerritt does the standard-issue crotchety old coot routine, Macht is only slightly less bland than he was in “The Spirit” (unless I’m mistaken his father Stephen does an unbilled cameo here), O’Loughlin (of the deceased vampire series “Moonlight”) machos it up way too broadly, Short is anonymous, and Doyle even more so. The technical crew gives Sena what he apparently wanted: led by cinematographer Chris Soos, they put a bleak gray pall over all the images to create a sense of foreboding, and the CGI works overtime in those endless blizzard sequences. The effect, though, is less menacing than boring.
Maybe the book was a decent read, but as far as the movie goes, people still familiar with typewriters will understand why one might observe that it would be nice if you could white out a mistake like “Whiteout.”