Whiteout Review

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by Chris McEneany Jan 24, 2010 at 12:00 AM

    Whiteout Review

    With Cas Harlow having already dished the dirt on this bland thriller for its US BD release, it now falls upon me to pick up the pieces from its virtually simultaneous region B-locked UK counterpart from Optimum and see if anything can be salvaged.

    Considering the weather that we have been having lately, Whiteout really seemed like a logical film to kick back with. Let's put it this way, there shouldn't be a great deal of disbelief suspension required to get “in the mood” with regards to its Antarctic setting. And, on the back of just reviewing Stallone's awesome Cliffhanger, you could say that I was already suitably chilled-out.

    Cas started his review with the award-winning line “Kate Beckinsale's ass”. I will subsequently specify this a little further by stating that Kate Beckinsale is an ass. Never a good actress at the best of times, Beckinsale proves to be as vacuous and colourless as the anaemic locale in which the story takes place. Turns in skin-tight PVC are all well and good in films that are consciously visual and directed purely at the primal instincts - Underworld, Van Helsing (well, okay, the 19th Century equivalent of PVC) - but when it comes to actually carrying a story that demands some genuine screen presence and a personality that we need to both sympathise with and rely upon, then we truly need something lurking behind those pretty eyes. Sadly, Kate Beckinsale has never betrayed anything deeper in a movie than how she looks in our eyes. Her delivery of the line “He's my brrraaaarrrrthuuurrrrrrrr!” from the overcooked turd that is Van Helsing (the film that also managed to knock the once-man-of-the-moment Hugh Jackman down a massive peg or two, from which I still don't think he has recovered) is something that rings very painfully in my memory even now, and her zombie-like portrayal of a US Marshall stationed at the bottom of the world is so clichéd and amateurish that it borders on being obnoxious.

    Adapted tritely from Greg Rucka's graphic novel of the same name by the quartet of Jon and Erich Hoeber and Chad and Carey Hayes, Whiteout is actually something of a throwback to the mystery thrillers of the sixties and seventies. Films like Ice Station Zebra and Bear Island spring to mind. With an ominous prologue set way back in 1957, when something deadly and decidedly Russian crashes in the freezing wastes, the scene is set for a modern-day case of frigid sleuthing when bodies begin to pile up around a research base and seemingly everyone presents themselves as a suspect. What was the Russian plane carrying? Why is it worth killing for? Who is always one step ahead of the demure detective? And, of course, who really cares?

    Having already broken up an end of the year party by dragging the mutilated corpse of a geologist through it, Beckinsale's shallow rozzer, Carrie Stetko, then responds to a desperate and vague call from another base, hinting at information regarding the mysterious death. But once there, she discovers more murder and foul deeds afoot and then the sudden and suspicious arrival of a Special Agent, from the UN, no less, convolutes things even further. With more red herrings than you catch red-handed in the Red Sea, Stetko finds that she can't trust anyone any more, and with the big black blanket of the Winter months of endless night hitting, along with the obligatory storms, time is fast running out for her to solve the case and unmask the killer, or killers, before she, herself, falls victim.

    On the face of it, this is a very standard whodunnit plot. Of course, what makes it unusual is the Antarctic setting. It is also neat that we have a female law enforcer to lead the hunt. This might not be so rare these days - both snowy outings themselves, Fargo and 30 Days Of Night offered something similar - but it is still a large enough break with convention to add a little frisson. So, there's a couple of plus points already. Ahhh, but hang on a moment. When our introduction to Stetko involves an elaborate, but daft, tracking shot that follows her suited, booted and hooded form out of the ice and into the research facility, whereupon we are treated to a scene of her undressing, walking confidently and brazenly about her quarters in sports bra and panties (check out Beckinsale's barely suppressed smile) and then enjoying a hot shower, it is abundantly clear that depth and character were not required in the audition. Jeez, I love seeing sexy women in movies, but such a gratuitous and horribly self-conscious episode as this is the ruination of a thriller's tone almost immediately. Basically, the director is telling you that this film is just going to pout at Beckinsale and hold her up as its prized treasure, not as a proper and, ahem, fully rounded character. For exploitation purposes, this works supremely well, but when you are trying to set something up as a serious action-drama, this is self-indulgence of the most cack-handed variety. If I want titillation, this isn't what I'm going to watch.

    Maybe I'm being too harsh. Kate Beckinsale can rise above such a selling-point striptease, can't she? I mean, she's pretty feisty in an action sequence, what with all that Underworld stuff, right?

    Uh-oh, what have we here?

    When chased by an unbelievably inept and clumsy assassin early on, how does she manage to forget to use the gun that she's made such a supposedly emotional reunion with? No, she just turns tail, runs, falls, runs some more, falls again and then crawls like your typical woman in a horror film. This, we are supposed to believe, is a tough US Marshall. Aye, she's carrying the traditional, almost regulation scars of a past incident that still haunts her, and taken herself off to a place that hasn't borne witness to a murder ever before (didn't Police Chief Brody say something similar about Amity?) so as to steady her nerves, but come on ... like an Antarctic base filled with grizzled, potentially stare-crazy New Age frontiersmen (and women) aren't going to blow off steam once in a while and get a tad ... awkward from time to time. We're talking Outland here - in fact I wish we were talking about Peter Hymans' SF/Western classic Outland here (BD release puh-leeze!) - and Whiteout very definitely tunes into some of the same elements. A chase through the corridors mimics Sean Connery's space-age Marshall hot-footing it after a suspect, the shuttle-craft turnaround that whisks away his wife and son and delivers his own would-be assassins is recalled with the research base staff heading out on tour-end planes, leaving the camp to become a veritable battleground for Stetko, her suspects and the murderer. But Becks ain't so tough. Even a little “bad cop” intimidation in an interrogation scene seems positively delicate. And what is it with having the big Marshall star swinging about REALLY NOTICEABLY on a lanyard? It's a badge ... just pin it on like every other cop does. Stetko looks ridiculous storming about corridors with it brandished so overtly, reminding me of that pie-eating super-putz Steven Seagal in Out For Justice. In my job at the MOD, I have to wear a security pass that is almost as flashy (yeah, I wish!) and the last thing you want is to have it hanging about your neck like that.

    With our lead character so emotionally unconvincing that she literally is an ice-maiden, you would hope and pray for some colour and life to emanate from the surrounding cast. And, sadly, you'd be disappointed there, too. Tom Skerritt, so often a hanger-on in the periphery of films, yet one who usually manages to inject some gravitas into them no matter how meagre his screentime, is simply terrible as the base doctor, John Fury. With constantly glazed eyes and dreadfully dull acting, he may look a little like Kris Kristofferson with his grey whiskerage, but clearly exhibits none of his brusque charisma. And the rest of them are so DTV in attitude and demeanour that they virtually all blend into one deposit of powder-puff snow. Well, you could make that a deposit of something far less pleasant if you want to be really accurate.

    Insipid direction from Dominic Sena, whose talent really was “Gone In Sixty Seconds”, crowns a production that was troubled from the get-go. But uninspiring set-pieces, a very poor understanding of how to capitalise upon such a terrific setting, shockingly bad CG effects - planes, the Aurora Borealis and even the snow that blows in through an open door look enormously fake - and a poor score from lower echelon composer John (Below) Frizzell only go to drive this experience further into the doldrums.

    What a wasted opportunity.

    Basically, you just can't do a romantic flick in an environment like this. Nor would comedy work. Frozen settings have been utilised for tension, isolation and paranoia since the likes of Mary Shelley's original Frankenstein, Irving Pitchel's adaptation of H. Rider Haggard's She and Hammer's The Abominable Snowman, though few would argue that the Zeitgeist for such temperature-drop suspense remain Ice Station Zebra, both versions of The Thing and the more recent 30 Days Of Night, itself based upon a graphic novel. Hell, even The X-Files mustered-up far more authentic chills in their own ice-locked episode, called, um, Ice. Thus, such a locale is absolutely ideal and almost God-given for bodycount pictures, Ten Little Indian-style murder mysteries or secluded battles against aliens/vampires/Russkies. Thus, Whiteout already has classic potential to freeze the blood and generate a supreme atmosphere of dread and suspicion. Yet it determinedly scuppers all of this with utterly formulaic direction, a risible screenplay that habitually botches any excitement - honestly, that early axe-swinging pursuit of a stumbling Stetko is like a sketch from Harry Hill - and some truly dreadful performances. What could have been agreeably tense becomes plodding and dull.

    If I ever have to watch a Kate Beckinsale movie again, she will have to be standing behind me with a gun to my head. Whiteout is a cop-out, I'm afraid. In fact, two hours of a completely white screen would possibly have been more compelling than this tripe. You don't believe me? If you manage to hang in there for the full duration and your jaw doesn't hit the floor in stunned response to one of the most anti-climactic denouements ever ... then you really have been out in the cold for too long. Whiteout can't garner anything more than a 3 out of 10 from me.

    I've got to be honest with you, folks. Normally I am hugely forgiving with movies and you'll often find that I am the most lenient when it comes to reviewing them. I am a steadfast believer that nobody ever sets out to make a bad film - some just don't have a choice, though, do they, Uwe Boll? But this is dire filmmaking in almost every department, yet its biggest crime is that it takes itself seriously in trying so hard to be something that it isn't. And, yep, in case you are wondering, it is fun to tear something apart once in a while. Perhaps this was long overdue.

    Anyway, this is one to avoid.

    The Rundown

    OUT OF
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