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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Whiteout is a perplexing movie. It has a great cast, an original thriller setting, and a compelling concept, and yet the central mystery is surprisingly limp. The trailer was first unveiled at the 2007 Comic-Con, yet the film itself went on to sit on the studio shelf for two years. Of course, that kind of story suggests a nearly-unwatchable disaster, which Whiteout certainly is not. It is, however, a movie that seems to have all the right pieces without knowing how to assemble them.

Kate Beckinsale plays Carrie Stetko, a U.S. marshal stationed at one of those scientific research stations in the Antarctic - the kind shown in Werner Herzog's documentary Encounters at the End of the World. (Never seen it? Netflix it immediately.) She's working at a remote location with relatively little serious crime as a way of escaping a frightening and tragic incident from her past. What should be a reasonably quiet assignment turns frightening when a dead body is found out in the middle of an ice shelf. It's clear that the dead man didn't intend to be there, because he is found without any of the protective gear needed to survive in such a harsh climate.

Carrie begins putting some clues together and discovers that the murder may be in some way connected to an old Russian aircraft that crashed on the ice fifty years ago. When she goes to the Russian substation to follow a lead, a masked figure is waiting for her with a pickaxe in hand. (Whenever the killer shows up, Whiteout starts to feel like a slasher movie in Antarctica.) Gabriel Macht plays Robert Pryce, a U.N. agent sent in to investigate the murder from a different angle. He and Carrie have limited time to identify and find the killer, as the entire facility is due to be evacuated in two days, thanks to a massive - and deadly - snowstorm that is due to hit. If they can't do it by then, they'll be stuck there.

I find the whole premise of Whiteout (based on Greg Rucka's graphic novel) to be really intriguing. The murder mystery is an age-old genre, but setting one in such a hostile, isolated location was a masterstroke. There's nowhere for Carrie to go, and once the storm hits, we're told that visibility is less than six inches. This leads to one pretty cool scene in which several characters have a fight during the storm, struggling to see and to hang onto their lifelines while the wind threatens to blow them away.

The mystery doesn't hold together, though, and that's ultimately the problem. This is where the film shows signs of possibly having been re-shot and/or re-edited during its long gestation period. Carrie and Robert often put the pieces together, yet it's not always clear to the audience how they arrived at their conclusions. A lot of the time, you get the impression that expositional scenes have been cut out. The characters seem to come to these breakthroughs out of thin air. For a mystery to work, the viewer needs to be able to directly follow the clues along with the hero/heroine; it has to make just as much sense to us. Whiteout cheats a little bit, having Carrie arrive at almost miraculous revelations with the scantest of evidence.

I don't think there's a strong enough villain either. The ax-wielder essentially leads nowhere. Several people die as a result of his actions, without us ever really knowing what his motivations are or even who he is. I'm reluctant to be too specific here, as I don't want to include any spoilers. Let's just say that, at some point in the screenwriting process, the character probably had a bigger role that was dramatically shortened to the point of meaninglessness. I'll also say that Whiteout follows an age-old movie rule: if there's a character who has no other purpose to the plot, he/she is a bad guy.

In fairness, I wasn't bored, in spite of some pretty substantial flaws. Kate Beckinsale manages to deliver some nice moments in the midst of all the chaos, as does Tom Skerritt, who plays Carrie's doctor and confidante. Director Dominic Sena (Swordfish) provides an effective visual style, especially in the snowstorm scenes. And for whatever it may lack dramatically, there was enough physically happening in the picture to keep me alert and awake. It doesn't add up to anything satisfying, but it didn't make me overly fidgety either.

It's been said that Hollywood should stop remaking classic movies and start remaking bad ones - the point being to learn from the mistakes and improve upon them. I haven't read Rucka's graphic novel, but I'm betting that it's more fully realized than the film adaptation. The raw material is here to make a really intense, hypnotic thriller. Perhaps an eventual second try will help Whiteout find its full potential.

( out of four)

DVD Features:

Whiteout arrives on DVD January 19 in widescreen format. The sound and picture quality are very good, especially in some of the snowy action scenes.

The sole bonus feature on the DVD is a 4-minute section of deleted scenes. One is simply a short expository sequence that was cut with no discernable effect on the plot. The other scene is actually really good and should have been left in. In it, Beckinsale's character investigates a marijuana theft on the base. The victim doesn't seem to understand the irony in reporting the theft of an illegal substance. This is a funny moment - one that shows the monotony of being law enforcement in a confined space.

On the whole, I think Whiteout will attract the curious on DVD. The film didn't perform well at the box office, but it has some of the appeal of a "watch at home" movie.

Whiteout is rated R for violence, grisly images, brief strong language and some nudity. The running time is 1 hour and 41 minutes.

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