USA, France, Canada / 101 minutes / color with some bw and some limited color / Warner, Dark Castle Dir: Dominic Sena Pr: Joel Silver, Susan Downey, David Gambino Scr: Jon Hoeber, Erich Hoeber, Chad Hayes, Carey W. Hayes Story: Whiteout (1998 graphic novel) by Greg Rucka and Steve Lieber Cine: Chris Soos Cast: Kate Beckinsale, Gabriel Macht, Tom Skerritt, Columbus Short, Alex O’Loughlin, Shawn Doyle, Joel Keller, Jesse Todd, Arthur Holden, Erin Hickock, Steve Lucescu, Patrick Sabongui.
A warm haven in an implacably cold, hostile landscape.
A neonoir set in Antarctica. U.S. Marshal Carrie Stetko (Beckinsale) has been posted to the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station these past two years, a post she sought in the aftermath of being forced to kill her crooked partner, Jack (Keller), in self-defense during a drugs operation in Miami. After two years of policing not much more than the occasional misdemeanor, she’s about ready to turn in her badge at the end of the current tour of duty in a few days’ time. Her old buddy Dr. John “Doc” Fury (Skerritt) is on a similar trajectory, telling her the reason he wants to retire is to spend time with the granddaughter he’s never so much as met.
The first victim.
There’s a major storm on the way, so the regular six-monthly rotation of personnel is being brought forward a couple of days. Anyone who isn’t on the flight out will have to stay here for another six months.
Even though conscious of this, Carrie and Doc answer the call when a body is spotted lying on the ice at some distance from the station. Flying there with pilot Delfy (Short), they discover that the dead man, one of a trio of scientists based at the Vostok Station and researching meteorites, has been murdered with an ice ax and—as Carrie much later deduces—thrown from a plane onto the ice. Doc is keen to have the body transported to McMurdo Base and pass the responsibility for the investigation along to the feds, but Carrie feels duty-bound to handle it herself.
While the station’s other personnel are busily partying or organizing the transfer of duties, Carrie receives a call from one of the other two Vostok scientists, John Mooney (Lucescu), telling her he has information for her should she make the trek there. She and Delfy do so, only to find Mooney dying from an ice-ax wound. She hardly has time to register this when she’s attacked by a masked figure wielding said ax. There follows a spectacular action sequence as Carrie flees from the killer first through the base’s deserted corridors and then through a whiteout between buildings—a whiteout, as we earlier learned, is when the winds blow up such a barrier of snow that visibility decreases almost to zero and one’s life literally does depend on retaining contact with a pegged-out lifeline.
Carrie reaches the main building at last, but in doing so rips the skin from her hand. (Later Doc will amputate two gangrenous fingers.) She loses consciousness for a while; on her recovery, she and Delfy discover that Robert Pryce (Macht), an investigator sent in by the UN, has also arrived at the base.
Though suspicious of him (as well they might be, because how did he get there?), they go with him to inspect the site of the three scientists’ most recent fieldwork. As they’re doing so, Carrie falls through a hole in the ice to discover, in a cavern beneath, the wreckage of a Soviet cargo plane that crashed here fifty years earlier following a gunfight between those aboard.
This being a movie based on a comic-book series, both men join her to explore the plane rather than one of them staying topside. This means they’re all three trapped by the predictable ice fall.
Thanks to Pryce’s resourcefulness, they manage to escape. While investigating the plane they discovered that a locked box had been recently broken open and six cylinders removed. These cylinders might, Pryce opines, contain nuclear fuel that the killer could sell to a terrorist organization . . .
And so the plot meanders onward. Despite the several absurdities, the visual spectacle of the movie—inevitable, given the locale in which it’s set—and some very finely staged action sequences, plus an excellent score (by John Frizzell), pull everything along. Visually and in ambience there are often echoes of movies like both versions of The Thing (1951 and 1989) and more particularly Alien (1979), another movie to star Skerritt; the similarity of color values emphasizes the similarity of circumstance as Carrie, like Ripley, explores dark deserted spaces anticipating that at any moment there might be a lethal eruption from one of those blue-tinged shadows.
The cinematography is interesting in general, especially in some of the establishing shots and in a long single take near the start, as we follow Carrie—whom we haven’t yet seen face-on—across the ice and into the base and along thronged corridors to finally reach her quarters. There’s a fine moment during this when the camera pans briefly sideways to follow a different figure, as if our eye had been caught by something.
That sequence is followed by one that’s extremely irritating. On reaching her quarters, Carrie strips down to her pristine white underwear preparatory to taking a shower. Lovingly the camera lingers on Kate Beckinsale’s panties-clad rear end, which she obligingly perks toward us. Now, there are few things that give me greater joy in my declining years than contemplating Kate Beckinsale’s rear end, panties-clad or otherwise, but the moviemakers somewhat insulted their audience by taking the lowest-common-denominator option of including this wholly redundant cheesecake scene.
The trick of showing past events in bw is fairly commonplace. Here, by contrast, Carrie’s several flashbacks to the scene in Miami with Jack and the drugs dealer (Sabongui) to whom Jack was selling her out are done in limited color, giving the impression of memories that are overbright. This, too, is far from an unusual device, but it’s done particularly effectively here. (The brief piece of bw footage represents a fevre dream.)
Bottom aside, Beckinsale is very good in the action role, if slightly less assured in the sequences when she’s exchanging badinage with Doc or Delfy, or with the cocksure sleazebag Russell Haden (O’Loughlin), who turns out to be of greater importance to the plot than we expect. Skerritt channels his inner Kris Kristofferson, while Macht employs—presumably under director Sena’s instruction—a curious flatness of delivery that makes it difficult for us to assess his character; reverting to Alien, or at least to its 1986 sequel, we almost expect him to pull a Bishop on us—to be suddenly revealed as an android. The pick among the performances by the four principals is probably Short’s; he brings a pleasing spontaneity to the character of the pilot and, when he says that he could spend his whole life flying in Antarctica and still never get accustomed to the beauty of the place, we believe he sincerely means it.
On release, the movie was a critical and box-office disaster; the former is easy to understand (the plot really is pretty hokey and ramshackle), the latter less so. Even if its components don’t fit together too well, Whiteout brings quite a lot to the table, notably the very great beauty of the scenery and the sense of frail human beings managing to resist but otherwise failing to make much of a dent in this most hostile of environments.
On Amazon.com: Whiteout