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Encounters With a Killer at the End of the World

MOVIE REVIEW
Whiteout (2009)

WHFP-00025r
Warner Bros. Pictures

The spirit of William Castle lives on in “Whiteout,” but for all the wrong reasons. The late horror director, known for promoting his pictures with elaborate gimmicks, was one of a kind when it came to audience interaction. For 1959’s “The Tingler,” Castle rigged buzzers to theater seats that jolted backsides whenever the movie’s titular antagonist would attack; that same year, an inflatable glow-in-the-dark skeleton zipped above the audience on a wire just as a skeleton terrorized Vincent Price’s fictional wife during the climax of “House on Haunted Hill.” “Whiteout” – the latest release from Joel Silver’s Dark Castle imprint, his salute to the gimmicky legend – unintentionally revives that brand of fourth-wall breaking. Set in Antarctica, it’s a lifeless murder mystery cloaked in C.G.I. snow blizzards. The filmmakers took the coldness too far, though; the frozen skills employed for “Whiteout” could literally numb viewers’ brains.

The biggest red flag is seen next to “screenplay by” in the credits. Four screenwriters were needed to adapt what one scribe, Greg Rucka, more than competently created, the 1998 Eisner Award-nominated graphic novel of the same name. The story is essentially the same: U.S. Marshal Carrie Stetko (Kate Beckinsale) is voluntary stationed in the murder-free cold of Antarctica on a U.S. scientific research facility. After a former partner’s violent deception in Miami, she welcomes the uneventful misdemeanors and frostbite. But then the body of a geologist is discovered, his head caved in and legs bent in half. Robert Pryce (Gabriel Macht), an investigator working for the United Nations, then shows up to lend a hand, turning “Whiteout” into a two-detective procedural.

Mr. Rucka’s source material consistently keeps the reader on edge with sharp dialogue and sudden outbursts of action, all anchored by a hard-ass female lead and unexpected character development. The U.N. investigator is a woman, furthermore, which introduces hints of intriguing lesbian flirtation between she and Stetko. All of that is gone in director Dominic Sena’s film, however. Ms. Beckinsale’s character is stripped of the book’s resiliency, now a fragile leader forced to confront past demons (been there, seen that). The actress gives an admirable effort, but Stetko is written so generically that she becomes little more than an eye-warming beauty amidst chilly scenery – which could have been the plan, since Ms. Beckinsale’s first scene begins with her disrobing and proceeds into a steamy shower. You’re practically waiting for Jason Voorhees to show up and treat her like one of his anonymous victims.

At least Ms. Beckinsale tries to salvage the script’s wreckage. When one prominent character is nearly killed, there’s no drama; when another is revealed to be a traitor, there’s no gut punch because the sympathy needed for betrayal to sting has never been earned. Aside from Ms. Beckinsale, the rest of the cast is so vapid that Mr. Sena could have cut the film’s budget in half and hired mannequins. Most robotic is Mr. Macht, a Matthew McConaughey-lite (and that’s saying something unfortunate) who delivers all of his lines with the charisma of a cadaver. His investigator role is key, meant to be a foil for Stetko with tons of presence. A Michael Shannon type would’ve worked just fine; it’s a non-entity here. The screenwriters thankfully avoid any romantic sparks between he and Ms. Beckinsale, a cliché plot-mover that was executed so well in the same-sex chemistry of Mr. Rucka’s comic. Mr. Macht couldn’t even engage in small talk believably, imagine his abilities as a love interest.

If the story itself was doused with the necessary intensity, the performances would be forgivable on a turn-the-brain-off level, but “Whiteout” chugs along at a pedestrian pace. The killer’s first appearance is startling, a chase scene through the visibility-impairing weather that culminates in on-screen skin-tearing and increased heart rates off screen. No slasher film in recent memory has so effectively dished the taut goods. Shame, then, that the film’s remainder relies on its sleuth angle. A whodunit that barely does anything, “Whiteout” makes any random “Scooby Doo” episode feel like a Raymond Chandler novel. The mystery revolves around a Russian airplane that crash-landed 50 years prior, left under a snow-covered tomb of land. Midway into the film, Stetko and Pryce snoop around the fossilized aircraft – apparently Stetko is clairvoyant – she pieces together the 1957 crash to the tee within a matter of minutes. Yet, she can’t nab the all-too-obvious killer. Open your private eye, lady.

“Whiteout” climaxes into an outdoors set piece where Stetko and Pryce come to decisive blows with the parka-wearing murderer. The wind howls while the sky-dropped white stuff nearly shrouds all visibility. What’s left to hardly see are three snorkel coats grappling, inanimate objects moving toward a resolution. If this dismissible production had shown any other wit whatsoever, you could accept the indiscernible scene as a winking metaphor – not an excuse to glance at your watch.

WHITEOUT

Opens on Sept. 11 in the United States and Britain.

Directed by Dominic Sena; written by Jon Hoeber, Erich Hoeber, Chad Hayes and Carey W. Hayes, based on the graphic novel written by Greg Rucka and illustrated by Steve Lieber ; director of photography, Chris Soos; edited by Martin Hunter; music by John Frizzell; production designer, Graham Walker; produced by Joel Silver, Susan Downey and David Gambino; released by Warner Brothers Pictures. Running time: 1 hour 41 minutes. This film is rated R by M.P.A.A. and 15 by B.B.F.C.

WITH: Kate Beckinsale (Carrie Stetko), Gabriel Macht (Robert Pryce), Tom Skerritt (Dr. John Fury), Columbus Short (Delfy), Alex O’Loughlin (Russell Haden) and Shawn Doyle (Sam Murphy).

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