“Whiteout,” starring Kate Beckinsale as US Marshal Carrie Stetko, is very much a case of hot and cold. The film is admirable for its level of restraint in overly changing the plot of Greg Rucka and Steve Lieber’s graphic novel. At the same time, it fails to convey the underpinnings that make “Whiteout” a great read.
After a brief prologue set during the Cold War, we are introduced to Amundsen-Scott Station at the South Pole. This base really exists and the production gets bonus points for recreating several of the actual station’s features. Here, we meet Carrie Stetko in the flesh of Kate Beckinsale. Yes, there is a shower scene. Yes, it is kind of gratuitous, but it is the only time the film gives into such an impulse.
After her shower, Carrie is called out to the Ice. A body has been found and it is quite clearly a murder. Also of interest, the body has no gear and no tracks. Along for the trip is one of her few friends at Amudsen-Scott, the grizzled base physician John Fury. It is always nice to see Tom Skerritt, but considering the kinds of roles he gets these days, you can kind of guess what is coming for this friendship.
Following some standard investigatory procedures to establish the dead man’s identity, Carrie and base pilot Delfy fly to a nearby camp where one of the victim’s compatriots is holing up. There, Carrie finds the man with his throat slit and is herself attacked by a man in extreme weather gear. This leads to the film’s first chase sequence and the incident which will lead to Carrie losing two fingers on her right hand.
Fans of the graphic novel will be pleased to know this aspect of the character remains in tact and plays out quite similarly to the book. At the same time, we are introduced to the film’s single biggest departure from its source.
Carrie and Delfy meet a United Nations investigator named Robert Bryce, played by “The Spirit’s” Gabriel Macht. Bryce takes the place of the British operative Lilly Sharpe. As in the book, Carrie is weary of this new member of the party, particularly because his extreme weather gear is quite similar to the man who attacked her earlier.
The three embark out onto the ice and find themselves down a hole. The scene appears to be a lift from the second “Whiteout” book, “Melt,” except for the presence of a Cold War era Soviet plane buried in the ice. It is here the three uncover the motive behind the mystery: a case the Soviets were transporting across the ice.
Returning to Amundsen-Scott as it prepares to shut down for the winter, Carrie, Delfy, Bryce and Fury commit to staying on site for the duration of the season in order to close the case. More attacks, foot chases, and revelations ensue.
While “Whiteout” follows the plot of its source material to an admirable degree, the film is never completely comfortable with telling such a seemingly simple story. The mystery/thriller genre of the Twenty-first Century expects the plots to be bigger and the stakes to be higher. Simple greed is not motive enough in these sorts of films anymore. Instead of the gold featured in the original story, the film takes a cue from “Melt” and swaps in plutonium. This actually makes the stakes feel more remote.
At the same time, the film resists the impulse to twist the story into a supernatural thriller or emphasize the indistinct romantic subplot. This show of restraint should be lauded.
Beckinsale does an fine job playing Carrie Stetko. Known for more superhuman roles or distant period sketches, it is interesting to see her as a modern person. Although, her version of Carrie does seem weaker than the character Rucka and Lieber crafted. Instead of exile for apparently shooting a key witness in cold blood, the film version of Carrie asks for the assignment on the Ice, but is planning to resign altogether. In the film flashbacks, we learn Carrie was betrayed by her partner and now has issues with trust. Completely removed from Carrie’s past is her husband, a victim of cancer. These changes at the writing level inform Beckinsale’s performance. Her vulnerabilities do not, in turn, amplify her strength and she never quite gives as good as she gets.
While it is impossible to compare Macht’s Bryce to the book’s Lilly Sharpe, his performance is still endearing. It may just be a function of the actor’s voice, but there are times when Bryce comes off believing he is the lead character. His superhero looks, slightly better understanding of the situation, and compassion for Carrie might all lead in that direction. It is more a function of the script than a consequence of Macht’s performance; the film seems more comfortable with him.
Director Dominic Sena brings flare to the exterior location shooting and manages to merge most of the CGI effects into a seamless blend, but also shoots the bulk of the film is rather bland way. A director of Janet Jackson videos and films like “Swordfish,” and the remake of “Gone in Sixty Seconds,” Sena would be the source of the film’s insecurities. The scenes of suspense never really build tension and the interiors of the film are portrayed in the most obvious, generic way possible. It is almost as though the director is bored by the material and unsure how to present it because he has nothing to blow up or cars to chase. At the very least, he seems to appreciate the beauty of Manitoba, which doubles for Antarctica.
While none of this insecurity is a truly criminal act of cinema, the one outright terrible aspect of the film is the way it chooses to enter Carrie’s flashbacks. Each flashback uses a weird zoom-in effect with an accompanying “whoosh” noise — it is similar to an effect used on the “CSI” shows — that renders the flashback hard to take seriously.
“Whiteout” is a completely competent adaptation of its source and will be an enjoyable film to some. While it never seems to take the material into truly interesting cinematic places, it does not assassinate the character of the book either. It is indicative of just how far the thriller genre as a whole has slid; where a story of greed, crazy weather, and a bi-sexual US Marshal seems completely average.