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Whiteout Review

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by Casimir Harlow Jan 22, 2010

    Whiteout Review
    Kate Beckinsale's ass.
    The last half-decade has definitely been the Age of the Graphic Novel Adaptation. After the botched League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and the disappointing From Hell (considering Alan Moore's classic book), it was not until the groundbreaking Sin City - the ultimate in staying faithful to the original source material - that things finally started to shape up for graphic novels. We had the Zack Znyder 'interpretations' of Watchmen and The 300, both of which, arguably, worked better on the Big Screen than they would have done had they stuck precisely to the respective books, the classy V for Vendetta, the bloody 30 Days of Night, and the visceral Wanted, which also succeeded - even though they strayed marginally from the original material.
    They still don't always get it right. Frank Miller's The Spirit was a big mess and The Surrogates was a thoroughly missed opportunity. And last year finally saw the release of an interpretation of the 1998 graphic novel Whiteout, by acclaimed writer Greg Rucka. Having been in production for the best part of a decade, with numerous re-writes, character changes, cast changes and studio changes, the film ultimately flopped on a massive scale, being critically derided to boot. Is Whiteout the totally irredeemable mess that everyone seems to think it is? And if so, what exactly went wrong?
    U.S. Deputy Marshal Carrie Stetko is on the last few days of a two-year assignment at a base in Antarctica when she encounters a body in the ice, which subsequently kicks off the continent's first murder investigation. Soon she uncovers far more than she expected, a 60-year old conspiracy involving a downed Russian cargo plane. With the supposed assistance of a mysterious UN investigator she sets out to find the person responsible for the murder and discover the truth behind what is hidden in the ice.
    Whiteout was a cleverly penned graphic novel, playing on its unique setting to become quite an unusual murder mystery. We've had strong female leads before, and had them conducting murder investigations, but never in the Antarctic, where the extreme weather conditions leave guns largely unreliable, and travel often treacherous. But the writer, Rucka, made sure that he made this story as much about character development as it was about a murder in such an unusual setting, his strong lead character - Carrie Stetko - a stoic heroine who endures physical suffering, as well as encounters various strange individuals who she may or may not be able to trust. It was a solid piece of writing, and would have made for an excellent thriller, particular in an age where effects are of a standard that can do justice to even the most imaginative piece of graphic literature.
    Unfortunately, somewhere along the way during its protracted production, the cinematic vision of Whiteout lost its way, sacrificing character development and dark mystery and instead founding itself upon one simple conceit - the snowy setting. It seemed that the studio and filmmakers behind the enterprise did not want to have a strong, unusual lead, nor a deep, unsettling mystery where you simply do not know who to trust. They just wanted a by-the-numbers routine thriller, set somewhere unusual, with a female lead - sure - but make sure she's just one of the clichéd variety. You might as well run a checklist of standard thriller requirements: hero with a shady past (that involves them being betrayed by their partner) is working out in some remote locale when they stumble across a big conspiracy. Add into the mix random mysterious agent who may work as a love interest and a narrow list of suspects who could be the murderer - with one sign-posted potential candidate. No twists and turns here, then. These guys (and girl) are never really in any jeopardy and - honestly - who would care even if they were?
    One of the biggest mistakes of the plot was in the casting (although, admittedly, the characters had already been damaged irreparably by some character changes - more on that later). Kate Beckinsale's ass. I'd read somewhere that that, alone, was worth the price of picking up this title. Well, true, the gorgeous Ms Beckinsale does indeed participate in surely one of the decade's most pointlessly gratuitous strip sequences, getting almost naked to take a shower, within seconds of her character being introduced. Apparently she agreed to do it 'to remain faithful to the original source material'. Of course, remaining faithful wouldn't necessarily involve, let's say, keeping her sexuality just as dubious as it was in the comic. No, remaining faithful means just sticking to the pictures drawn - particularly when they are of nekkid women. Well, there is admittedly one of the best ass-shots of 2009 in this movie (up there with the front cover of The Unborn, and possibly the highlight of that movie too) but you know what? Kate used an ass-double (see the photo gallery). Such dedication. I guess she must have eaten one too many lettuce leaves for the producers to let her reveal her derriere.
    Now it's a shame that the performances she gives - more often than not - largely come down to her physical assets, as I've seen her in a couple of movies where she can clearly act. Scorsese got one of her best performances out of her for his visionary Howard Hawks biopic The Aviator, so it is a waste really that she so often gets lumbered with skin-tight outfits and wafer-thin characters (The Underworld movies - entertaining but her character development was non-existent). Couldn't we have both her looks and a decent performance? I heard that she was hoping to be Catwoman (if they use the character) in the Christopher Nolan Batman franchise, so perhaps that is one dream that may just come true. Alas, here, Beckinsale phones in one of the most hackneyed, monotone, by-the-numbers police detectives in the history of film. Even the physical damage she takes fairly early on - which could have been used to develop her character, as it was in the books - becomes just another pointless moment in a film that is probably better watched in stills (i.e. read the damn graphic novel).
    Accompanying her on this predictable journey are a couple of vaguely familiar faces. Gabrial Macht (the hero in that other monumental comic book failure, The Spirit) steps into the role of the UN agent sent to the Antarctic on a clandestine operation, and puts in an equally lacklustre performance. It does not help that the character was originally a woman in the comics. There, her behaviour was tough, her relationship with Carrie was tense (Carrie may not have been a lesbian, per se, but she certainly chose to take comfort in the warmth of the arms of this mysterious Government agent) and her loyalties were always in question. But the producers, in their infinite wisdom, thought two female leads would be one too many. They thought a lesbian tryst was a bit too passé. So they just made the character a man, dialled down the romance, and had him stand around looking like he might have once had a purpose but had forgotten what it was. Macht can't hope to save such a raped character. We also get Tom Skerritt, a reliable character actor who has had supporting roles in the likes of Alien, Top Gun and - more recently - Tears of the Sun, but has done little else which people will remember him from. Although he has a little more material to work with here, it's not really until the final act that you get any kind of vague acting out of the guy: the early characterisation of him as the base's doctor - and Carrie's consigliore - just does not allow for it.
    Without the characters - or indeed performances - required to make this a decent character-driven thriller, we fall back, once more, on the wild setting. And sure, the icy tundra makes a great location to shoot some moderately tense sequences. Unfortunately, at least at the cinema, these were almost impossible to decipher, in amidst the blur of the snow and the similarity of all of the characters snow outfits. Everything looked the same and 'whiteout' became nothing more than a term used for hazing up the screen so monumentally that you might as well have been watching a dodgy VHS pirate from the early nineties, similarly asking - what the hell is going on here? On Blu-ray, in the Home Cinema environment, these supposedly tense sequences do become more watchable, the characters marginally more discernable and thus the action easier to follow. It's still not as good as it could or should have been, but it is better than on the Big Screen. But with ninety minutes of meandering investigation and ten minutes of above-average icy action, they don't even really use the setting effectively.
    Underdeveloped characters, not enough action, not enough thrills, why would you even consider watching this mess, you may ask. Well, when all is said and done, its tried-and-tested clichéd murder mystery formula is still enough to entertain in a Saturday night movie kind of way. The setting is unique, and inherently interesting; the ingredients may not have much flavour but they'll likely sustain you for the duration, and there's nothing overtly bad about the movie - just a series of missed opportunities and average constituents. And Kate Beckinsale's ass, well unfortunately that's nowhere to be seen.