The whiteout: a terrifying natural phenomenon during which heavy snow and raging winds collude to completely obscure visibility. Imagine being trapped in such a nothingness with temperatures cold enough to turn your bare skin into black ash, all while on the most secluded land mass on Earth. It’s the perfect groundwork for bone-chilling (pun intended) horror. However, we get none of this from Whiteout. Instead, the blowing snows fail to conceal a poorly conceived detective story made with depressingly little innovation.
Whiteout centers on Kate Beckinsale (“Underworld”), who is perfectly serviceable as Carrie Stetko, a US Marshal stationed in Antarctica. She’s prepared to return to civilized territories and warmer climates, but her plans are quickly derailed when a dead body is discovered on the ice, marking Antarctica’s first homicide. Soon, the body count builds, and Stetko finds herself amid a multiple-murder conspiracy, complete with missing tubes of potentially nuclear material and a scythe-wielding masked assailant.
Despite the intense locale, Whiteout builds its intrigue with all the ferocity of a Nancy Drew novel. But at least Nancy Drew had some ability to reason. Agent Stetko displays a staggering ineptitude in her detective duties: failing to draw obvious connections, making bad decisions left and right. And then, she inexplicably displays psychic-like abilities, able to finely reconstruct complex past events from a tiny hole in the wall or a broken padlock. These bipolar detective capacities are a testament to clunky narrative construction more than anything else, but the effect is, nonetheless, strikingly hilarious. I haven’t laughed so hard at most of the intentionally comedic movies this year.
Most of film unfurls just as clumsily. The puzzle pieces of our murder mystery come together at their own convenience. Any sense of logic or natural progression is dodged in favor of random occurrences and Stetko’s aforementioned chance premonitions. Not that there is much of a mystery to be solved anyway. Anyone even vaguely familiar with the whodunit genre will know the answers to the plot’s major questions early in the game. And there’s not much to keep you occupied while Stetko catches up either. Interesting characters, perhaps? Nope: as generic as they come. An intriguing side-plot or background story, maybe? Nope: equally bland and predictable. Indeed, there is a sense with Whiteout that very little creative effort was put forth from anyone involved. The film feels like a strictly commercial entity; no one even bothered trying to make art here.
There’s still a successfully lingering suspense through some of the film, owed entirely to the titled concept: the whiteout. The ravaging snowfall makes for a nice visual effect, and watching Stetko push her way through nature’s fury can be gripping. It’s the complete vulnerability, the vast unknown that makes the whiteout so terrifying. The same can be said for the masked assailant: he’s an impenetrable, anonymous monster as he dangles his menacing blade. Luckily for Stetko, this particular assailant has the aim of a blindfolded toddler, improbably missing his mark swipe after swipe, and the film once again trumps its own inherent strength. Even the whiteout proves more problematic than disquieting. The characters become lost in their surroundings, and so do we. Snow-covered action scenes are confusing instead of exciting.
I could prod further. The physics proposed by the film are frequently dubious (I overheard one viewer lamenting that guns would not be able to fire at the temperatures described in the film), but these are scant misgivings next to much greater missteps. Whiteout is a lazy film. Even with an interesting hook and a frightening setting, the film is neither interesting nor terrifying. Instead, uneven narrative, paper-thin characters, and uninspired plot devices yield a vastly mediocre detective story wrapped in a wooly jacket and shrouded by snowflakes that has little mystery to it. There might be some interesting visuals and the occasional cheap thrill mixed in, but in the end, Whiteout is completely irrelevant. It shouldn’t be long before it too is lost among the forgettable, thoughtless films of the ages: buried in the vast snowdrifts of time.
Whiteout was produced by Warner Bros. Pictures in association with Dark Castle Entertainment. Directed by Dominic Sena. Written by Jon Hoeber & Erich Hoeber and Chad Hayes & Carey W. Hayes, based on the graphic novel by Greg Rucka and Steve Lieber. Also starring Gabriel Macht (“The Spirit”), Columbus Short (“Stomp the Yard”), and Tom Skerritt (“Contact”). Runtime is 96 minutes. Rated R for violence, grisly images, brief strong language and some nudity.