Its stunning natural landscape notwithstanding, Antarctica-set thriller “Whiteout,” a frozen concoction of red herrings, incongruous plot points and thinly developed characters, will leave auds cold. It’s tough enough for a female lead to sell an action thriller, and not even the “Underworld” legions drawn by Kate Beckinsale, here playing a U.S. marshal tracking a killer, will be able to make up for the chilly reception likely to be afforded this Dominic Sena-helmed pic, which should fade faster than a polar bear in a blizzard.
Originally published in 2001, Greg Rucka and Steve Lieber’s taut graphic novel featured the tenacious Marshal Carrie Stetko and blonde British agent Lily Sharpe trying to solve a murder at a South Pole research outpost. The movie, which changes some key players and plot points, starts with a bang, as a Russian plane carrying secret cargo plummets in a spectacular snowy crash. All aboard are killed. Flash forward to the American base that Stetko patrols. But the screen Stetko is far less credible than her tough-as-nails print incarnation.
It doesn’t help the character’s credibility that our introduction to her — after a lengthy tracking shot setting up the base — involves a steamy shower scene whose net effect is to remind the (presumably male) audience that the actress is in fantastic shape, although Beckinsale’s near total lack of body fat would arguably render Stetko a dubious candidate for a post in the frozen wilderness. That’s the last bit of visible skin, however; Stetko and colleagues spend most of the movie buried under layers of thermals and fleece.
Just days away from ending an uneventful two-year stint in Antarctica, Stetko snaps into action when a body turns up. It’s the first recorded murder in Antarctica, and though she apparently can’t eye a corpse without reliving (in color-saturated flashbacks) a painfully botched past arrest, she’s a woman on a mission.
But what’s curious about Stetko’s determination to solve the mystery is that it’s so at odds with Beckinsale’s low-key interpretation. Rather than being excited by the chase or driven by an intrinsic need for justice, she spouts dialogue that even she doesn’t seem to believe. Her presumed motivation — to expunge the memory of this past blunder — never really feels authentic.
Supporting cast includes Tom Skerritt as Stetko’s avuncular pal Dr. John Fury, Gabriel Macht as a U.N. official (replacing the graphic novel’s agent Sharpe) who might also be a love interest; Columbus Short as a spirited airplane pilot and Alex O’Loughlin as a sassy Australian. The script, credited to two pairs of brothers (Jon & Erich Hoeber and Chad & Carey Hayes), appears to have been pummeled to the point where some lines inadvertently yielded snickers and groans.
It’s too bad, because on a technical level, “Whiteout” has its assets.
It must have been no picnic filming in tricky conditions against a white-engulfed backdrop (Manitoba convincingly stands in for Antarctica) and Chris Soos’ lensing makes the territory seem both menacing and beautiful. Wind-whipped action scenes in which characters cling desperately to guide lines as they fight an ice-ax wielding villain are compellingly staged –though composer John Frizzell’s overwrought score announces every terrifying gesture.