When the trailer for Whiteout first appeared I jumped to the disheartening conclusion that Hollywood had decided to remake The Thing (again), this time with a female protagonist. The Antarctica setting, the swirling snow over the title cards, the whistling wind on the soundtrack and an action scene set during a blizzard all triggered fond memories of the fine John Carpenter/Kurt Russell collaboration and the fervent hope that the filmmakers weren’t messing with a good thing, pun not intended.
Less than a minute of subsequent Internet research alleviated my fears: this was an entirely new South Pole extravaganza, based on the graphic novel by respected comic artist Greg Rucka. Yet, after seeing what director Dominic Sena and his team of four screenwriters (never a good sign) made out of Rucka’s material, it’s hard not to wish they really had rebooted Carpenter’s. A lifeless whodunit, it wastes the mystical setting (or at least the setting that once seemed that way, before March of the Penguins began the ongoing cinematic demystification of it) and the always game Kate Beckinsale on a pedestrian plot that could be set anywhere.
The star plays U.S. Marshall Carrie Stetko, in her second year as the law enforcement officer at the Admunsen-Scott South Pole station, latitude 0° E. She’s desperate to leave and plans to be on board one of the last flights out before the Astral winter begins. Unfortunately a corpse turns up far inland, a scythe wielding maniac in a snowsuit tries to murder Stetko at a Russian base and an oncoming storm hastens the airborne winter exits. Yet, she decides to do her job and solve the murders, even if it means riding out the six months of darkness.
The picture minimizes the majesty of the isolated continent, one of the few places on Earth that will forever be undisturbed by mass human development. Beyond a few token references to the aurora australis and the periodic appearance of blinding, powerful snowstorms the location never informs the narrative or the behavior of the characters. There’s no sense of the supernatural, foreboding possibilities latent in a world mankind hasn’t conquered, that still exists much as it has for millennia. Werner Herzog, in his great film Encounters at the End of the World, made palpable the ecstatic beauty of the land of expansive ice shelves, spiraling mountains and treacherous canyons. While one should never rationally expect something similar from a Dominic Sena thriller, Whiteout would have benefited from some attempt to link the narrative to the world outside the base’s doors.
Beckinsale, most at home in the action-thriller genre, gives her all. But, she too seems affected by the general culture of disinterest. She’s given the imposing, too tall task of bringing some human emotion to a pedestrian murder mystery, the depth and scope of which better befits an average episode of CSI than a major motion picture. The movie cycles through so many clichés in progressing the plot — the good old sneak up behind the protagonist while she’s in close-up trick happens over and over again — that it’s impossible to regard with anything but passive disinterest. There’s no atmosphere to speak of, nor is there the slightest attempt to consider the psychological ramifications of the claustrophobic nature of life on a research base.
Designed to be the centerpieces here the action scenes, several of which take place during the storms outdoors, are chaotic and confusing. The presence of the murderous stalker gives them the feel of a low-rent Friday the 13th movie; think Jason Freezes His Ass Off and you’ve pretty much got it. They, like the rest of the movie, take place in a vacuum divorced from the real world or the deeper realities of the environs. In short, Whiteout is mildly watchable at best and flatter than years-old soda at worst, the sort of movie made for a late night showing on TNT.