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There comes a moment in Dominic Sena's Whiteout where our heroine Marshal Carrie Stetko (played by the usually British Kate Beckinsale) is about to face something horrific but it doesn’t come from a faceless killer’s snow axe or from the possibility of freezing to death in the Antarctic winter. The scene takes place in a doctor’s office and the horror of the situation comes from Stetko facing the aftermath of being exposed to sub-zero weather. I won’t spoil it further but let me add just this final note: what should have been a scene that left the audience squirming in silent horror turned into an unintentional funny moment where the people in my theatre (myself included) openly laughed at the absurdity of a poorly chosen line of dialogue. It’s these kinds of stupid moments that reduce Whiteout to being a sub-par thriller, one that had the potential to be better than it is.
Stetko is the lone law enforcement officer stationed at one of the big western bases in the frozen desert at the bottom of the world. Two days before her tour of duty is over and she gets to return back to warmer places she gets a call to investigate a frozen body out of the ice. She takes with her Dr. John Fury (a great superhero name wasted here but adequately played by Tom Skerritt) and pilot Delfy (Columbus Short). Sure enough there’s a dead man stuck to the ice but the problem is that he’s been murdered, Antarctica’s first homicide. That makes Stetko and Fury, who also was headed out of the pole, first-hand witnesses to the crime and they can’t leave until they find the killer. As Stetko follows the dead scientist’s trail she gets attacked by a masked killer who seems to be covering up his or her tracks. Could the assailant be U.N. special agent Robert Pryce (played by The Spirit's Gabriel Macht, another actor covering up his accent)? Maybe, but then when you have a movie that needs to show us four flashbacks in the first act to a so-called traumatic event from Stetko’s past you’re not dealing with a movie that uses a lot of subtlety.
Beckinsale’s not a bad actress and she does her job in Whiteout but the effort won’t win her any awards. Macht’s role is pretty thankless since Beckinsale is supposed to be the heroine of the film even though her Stetko often gets reduced too many times to playing the role of helpless female running away from a masked killer. For a U.S. Marshal, Stetko sure is dumb at some parts of this film: she doesn't draw her gun from its holster when off to investigate spooky regions of deserted base camps; she doesn't call for backup when it makes sense to do so; and in one case she actually lets the killer slip away. If Stetko was like this back on the mainland then maybe it's no wonder why she's freezing her ass off down south.
As for the story it's a total by-the-numbers job; leave to go take a leak and you won’t have a problem figuring out what’s happened while you’re away because you've seen this same story in other movies before. Maybe the script was always this dumb but after seeing four films by director Dominic Sena now (Kalifornia, Gone in 60 Seconds, Swordfish and this) I'm placing the blame for this lame squarely at his feet. Sena comes from the Propaganda Film camp and he knows how to fill a movie with interesting visuals. Again and again, his problem seems to come from sacrificing story and characterization over action and visuals; his films are populated with cookie-cutter movie people with no real depth to them and who do dumb things that their real-life counterparts wouldn't do. I blame Sena for these oversights as I once read the original screenplay for Swordfish by writer Skip Woods. What I saw on-screen was definately a dumbed down version of Woods' story but with slick visuals, good casting and decent action. Maybe it's just that I'm the kind of guy that prefers his action movies to have brains as well as sex appeal or else there’s really no point to things except to stare at the merchandise.
There’s also this minor thing about Whiteout that I almost don't want to mention because it’s so trivial but I have to address it or else it will bug me like a sliver of wood in the fleshy part of my hand. The movie opens 60 years in the past so we can understand the reasons why someone is killing people in Antartica in the present day, but when the action flashes ahead to 2009 the movie doesn’t bother to inform the audience of the time jump. It’s the first time that I can recall a movie using a descriptive to inform me that this part is in the past but then forgets to say, OK, we’re back to modern day. But really, it shouldn’t bother me because Whiteout has a dozen of these kinds of issues wrong with it including a mother of a slip-up that comes at the end. When the final villain's is finally revealed and the show is over it's never explained how the evil-doer knew of the event that set off the reason for the murders in the first place. I turned to my wife and asked if I had somehow missed that part. The answer, of course, was no. The sound that followed was my hand covering my face.
I can't come right out and call Whiteout an awful movie, only below-average and at times you're a little embarassed to be watching it. I can say that the snow effects are wonderfully realized and the CG effects are beautifully meshed with the live action stuff. Like I said, in the hands of a better director who had given more thought about the screen story and squeezing out more believability from their leads, Whiteout would have been a good thriller to watch. I hope that the graphic novel it's based on is smarter than the film.