"Antarctica: The coldest, most isolated land mass on the planet."
Ho-hum. Another formulaic, middle-of-the-road thriller. The gimmick in this one is that it's a murder mystery set in Antarctica. Which doesn't make it any better, just colder. And it stars a beautiful woman, Kate Beckinsale, as the lead crime fighter. Not that we haven't had crime thrillers starring beautiful women before; one recalls Jodi Foster in "Silence of the Lambs," Sigourney Weaver in "Copycat," Frances McDormand in "Fargo," "Sandra Bullock in "Murder by Numbers," and many others. But female protagonists in mystery movies are still few and far between compared to males, so the sight of Ms. Beckinsale taking on the baddies is at least a tad refreshing.
The movie begins with a prologue that shows us how a Russian cargo plane crashed in Antarctica in 1957 after the pilot and copilot tried to murder the guards of something very valuable they were carrying. Everyone aboard the plane died, and the plane disappeared in the snow.
Skip ahead to the present and the Amundsen-Scott Base, a U.S. Scientific Research Facility studying global warming in Antarctica. Beckinsale plays a U.S. Marshal, Carrie Stetko, who isn't on screen more than a few minutes before she's taking her clothes off. This film at least knows where its priorities lie.
Marshal Stetko has for the past two years been keeping order at the facility. It's an unglamorous job, and one we can only surmise she took it to get away from her previous life (which we are treated to in gratuitous flashbacks). A few days before she's scheduled to go home to the States (and quit the U.S. Marshal Service), a pilot discovers a body on the ice not far from camp. The victim is a geologist whom Stetko determines someone may have murdered. Oh, dear: What to do? Of course, Stetko chooses to stay and investigate, presumably because she's a dedicated cop, or because it's the first murder ever on the continent and it intrigues her, or because she knows it's good for the movie.
We can see at a glance the murder is probably related to the cargo-plane incident of fifty years earlier, and among the various suspects, it's not too hard to figure out who is responsible. So the film is not really much of a head scratcher from the outset.
However, "Whiteout" is one of those mysteries where everyone is suspicious: There's Robert Pryce (Gabriel Macht), a fellow who claims to be a U.N. Special Investigator who just happened to be in the area (like Antarctica is just down the street) when the base reported the murder to the FBI. There's Delfy (Columbus Short), one of several pilots at the base, and the one who discovered the body on the ice. There's Dr. John Fury (Tom Skerritt), the base's chief medical officer. And there's Russell Haden (Alex O'Louglin), a guy associated with somebody somewhere, I forget what, but looking guilty as hell. And any number of other folks floating around.
If you've seen John Carpenter's "The Thing," you'll already have a feeling for the visual style of "Whiteout" (although, to be fair, "Whiteout" is not a sci-fi film, no matter how far-fetched the plot), and if you've seen the "CSI" or "Bones" TV shows, you'll be familiar with the film's crime-detecting style. You can also expect a "whiteout"--an "unholy set of weather conditions" where "the world falls away"--to occur at the film's climax. I mean, where would the movie be without the title fitting in somewhere?
Dominic Sena ("Gone in Sixty Seconds," "Swordfish") directed "Whiteout," which a flock of scriptwriters based on a graphic novel by Greg Rucka and Steve Lieber. Maybe the story played better as a graphic novel and the clichés and stereotypes didn't pop out at you so much.
The fact is, the scenery overwhelms the meager plot and characters. But at least the scenery is worth looking at, most of it shot in Canada, with what looks like stock footage of Antarctica to fill in the gaps. Otherwise, it's a film that makes us stop every few minutes and ask, "Huh? How'd he do that?" Or "What just happened during all those quick edits in the snow flurries?"
Be prepared in "Whiteout" for all the murders, chases, avalanches, ice storms, shady characters, and hairbreadth escapes known to mystery tales everywhere, with Sena trying his best to bolster the tension with loud music and even louder aural effects.
It's a wonder that "Whiteout" is watchable at all, but it is, thanks to Sena at least keeping the action moving along at a healthy clip. The whole affair reminds one of a decent TV movie, which is still not saying a lot considering the time and expense involved.
Final questions: Since Stetko mistrusts Pryce so much, why didn't she just call his superiors in Washington and verify his credentials? Is the base completely isolated, shut off the outside world? I don't think so. And when everyone evacuates the base, why can't Stetko stay behind for a little longer? Is there no way the U.S. Government couldn't send a plane back for her in a few days or weeks? Is the government that cheap? And why must the film owe so much to Agatha Christie's "And Then There Were None" ("Ten Little Indians"), with primary suspects dying one at a time, just before they're ready to spill the beans?
The best I can say for "Whiteout" is that it's painless. Brainless, too, but not so much so that you want to throw a shoe through the TV screen. It's just ordinary.
If it weren't for the fact that the filmmakers shot much of the film on location in Canada and there are vast stretches of white snow and simulated snowstorms, I could probably have given the video a higher score, a 9/10 instead of an 8/10. Certainly, the 1080p high definition helps, although Warner Bros. use only a single-layer BD25 to accommodate it, with a VC-1 codec. Definition in most scenes is excellent; colors are slightly subdued but realistic; contrasts are vibrant; detailing is exemplary except in select softer shots; and a fine, inherent film grain makes the picture look quite natural. However, things are less successful visually in the outdoor blizzards, which look a touch too noisy and busy, and in facial close-ups, which can often appear a bit too glossy.
Since this is a typical thriller, we can expect typical thriller-type sound and music to go with it, which the lossless Dolby TrueHD 5.1 sound reproduces adequately. Lots of bullets ricochet in the pre-title sequence, setting the tone for the soundtrack. Then the film treats us to a good deal of storm noise in the surrounds. The sound is not particularly spectacular or awesome, just sufficient to get the job done with a minimum of fuss. I would have liked more dynamic impact and deeper bass, but since the midrange dialogue comes across smoothly--and there is an abundance of dialogue--it's enough.
The Blu-ray disc comes with two exclusives not found on the regular DVD. The first is the featurette "The Coldest Thriller Ever," twelve minutes with the cast and crew discussing the filming on location in Canada; and the second is the featurette "Whiteout: From Page to Screen," twelve minutes with the writer and the illustrator of the graphic novel, among others. The primary extras wrap up with a four-minute series of deleted scenes.
In addition to the featurettes and deleted scenes, the BD set comes with a digital copy disc for iTunes and Windows Media, the offer expiring January 12, 2011; twenty-three scene selections; a slipcover for the keep case; English, French, and Spanish spoken languages; French and Spanish subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired.
There is nothing particularly awful about "Whiteout," and, indeed, viewers who enjoy television mysteries should feel right at home with it. Director Dominic Sena is becoming accomplished at churning out these kinds of things, and if you don't mind the garden-variety nature of the product, you might just find it entertaining.
Many are cold, but few are frozen.