A murder mystery in Antarctica is an intriguing concept, especially considering the sheer originality of its sequestered setting. The gravely cold temperatures and lack of a permanent human population have made the chilly continent mostly extrinsic in cinema circles — save for “March of the Penguins” — but its isolation and hazardous environment are ideal for inciting thrills and placing characters in peril. Still, “Whiteout” fails to capitalize on its unusual locale, instead becoming a film that relies upon enough genre conventions to leave one scouring for synonyms of the word “cliché.”
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Based on the graphic novel of the same name, “Whiteout” follows U.S. Marshall Carrie Stetko (Kate Beckinsale, “Underworld”). She is stationed on an Antarctic base as she investigates the grisly death of a geologist. Stetko is also under a severe time constraint — the base is going to be evacuated in three days before the devastating Antarctic winter sets in. Stetko must confront an important moral dilemma: Should she get the hell out of Antarctica and leave the crime to other authorities, or follow her case to the end and be stranded on the base for the next six months? Naturally, our virtuous (read: generic) lead chooses the latter.
Other characters in “Whiteout” fill out a checklist of unabashed stereotypes: the nurturing doctor nearing retirement (Tom Skerritt, TV’s “Brothers & Sisters”), the straight arrow U.N. officer (Gabriel Macht, “The Spirit”) and the cocky pilot with an unquenchable libido (Alex O’Loughlin, TV’s “Moonlight”). As expected, any sort of development for each lethargically performed character is nonexistent.
This lack of character depth isn’t solely responsible for tanking the film, as Stetko’s own “dark past” is yet another hackneyed, superfluous element of the story. This backstory, supposedly showing the audience her vulnerability and toughness, unfolds through a series of sepia-toned flashbacks (just so you know it was a long time ago). Her character’s “revelation” is not only predictable — it severely disrupts the flow of the film, often causing it to feel more like a Lifetime Original Movie than a high-tension thriller.
This is unfortunate, as “Whiteout” sets a perfect pace with a marvelous plane crash in its opening sequence. The filmmakers, however, included too much dialogue, too many extraneous subplots and too little action to maintain the level of excitement.
Among the film’s few bright spots is its clever mixing of genres. Stetko’s encounters with the pickaxe-wielding villain resemble scenes from decent slasher movies — a frenetic camera follows the silent, menacing killer as he chases his prey through gale-force blizzards. If the entire film had followed the approach of these well-crafted but sparse confrontations, the result may have been a competent horror movie.
“Whiteout” features several breathtaking shots of the Antarctic landscape (hopefully they weren’t constructed through CGI, but they probably were). Of course, since there’s little else the filmmakers have to be proud of in the film, these shots are frustratingly overused, contributing to the brutally slow pace of this poor excuse for an action thriller.