Kate Beckinsale as Carrie Stetko
Gabriel Macht as Robert Pryce
Tom Skerrit as Dr. John Fury
Alex O’Loughlin as Russell Haden
Columbus Short as Delfy
Shawn Doyle as Sam Murphy
There’s probably no lonelier place on Earth than Antarctica; nothing but snow and ice as far as the eye can see that will kill you in less than five minutes. And stationed smack dab in the middle of that is U.S. Marshall Carrie Stetko (Kate Beckinsale) in what would seem to be the most dead end of dead end assignments. Right up until the moment a corpse shows up out on the ice and a mystery man in black starts trying to do the same to all the witnesses to the deed.
Based on Greg Rucka’s excellent graphic novel, “Whiteout” has the same general problem that book did as well. It’s a really good idea for a crime thriller but it tends towards conservative storytelling that sells the idea short a bit. It is in many ways a film about its setting; if the story were transplanted to another setting it would immediately seem more familiar if not out-and-out predictable.
But fair enough. “Whiteout” isn’t the first film to try and sell itself as more original than it is based on a few tweaks to a tried and true formula and if some of it is quite familiar, it’s still several levels above “Die Hard in a Hockey Rink.”
And it is an awful nice idea for a setting. Ever since the advent of film noir, crime movies have lived for shadows. They’re spooky and moody and comment fashionably on the similar darkness in the souls of those who operate in them. That visual motif is nicely turned on its head in “Whiteout” where everything is white, white, white as far as the eye can see with the occasional patch of shadow the only thing offering any sort of texture or detail to the world.
It’s like a photo negative of a film noir. Rather than pounce out of the shadows, the villains lumber right for their victim who are unable to escape because of the harsh conditions of the world they live in. Director Dominic Sena (“Swordfish”) has made quite a bit of hey out of his monochromatic pallet, and large portions of “Whiteout” are quite lush to look at.
It does get away from him some though, particularly towards the end as the needs of the concept outweigh the needs of the film. As Doctor Fury (Tom Skerritt) explains, the main risk of Antarctica is the proverbial whiteout, a flurry of wind and ice that leaves those caught in it unable to see anything. It’s a good idea but a conflict based entirely on the characters not being able to see anything is going to be pretty tough to visualize without making the action impossible for the audience to see as well. Sena never quite gets there, unfortunately.
It’s still an interesting new idea for a crime thriller and a few bumps aside generally it works. It’s unfortunate then that the narrative itself doesn’t come up to scratch. The character beats are a little too pat to be really interesting.
A case gone bad in Miami robbed Carrie of her self-confidence and sent her off to self-imposed exile in Antarctica, a piece of back-story she conveniently takes the time to talk about in a lull between suspense sequences in the way these kinds of films do. The pace from action beat to character beat, back and forth, is about exactly what you always get from these kinds of films. It took four writers to get the exact same kind of structure we always get and with about the same amount of shallowness we always get.
“Whiteout” is not particularly bad, some of it is quite good, but it does follow the thriller playbook step by step with only a little bit of tweaking. A lack of originality isn’t the end of the world, and the wintry backdrop makes up for a lot, but if only as much thought had been given to its characters it could have been so much better.