Tuesday, 2 February 2010
Whiteout (2009) dir. Dominic Sena
Starring: Kate Beckinsdale, Tom Skerritt and Gabriel Macht
By Greg Klymkiw
Antarctica was made for the movies. In spite of this, very few pictures have actually been set against it as a backdrop, so a picture like "Whiteout" sets the bar of anticipation rather high - at least for this fella'. Based on a popular graphic novel and starring Kate (she-of-the-painted-on-wardrobe) Beckinsdale, this mystery thriller set on a research base in that frozen world down, down, down under, had "potential hit" written all over it. Potential, however, is one thing and deliveringthe goods is quite another and "Whiteout" pretty much stinks.
From the earliest film footage of Antarctic expeditions (Amundsen, Byrd, etc.) through to such popular contemporary works as the BBC "Life in the Freezer" series and the insanely popular cutesy-pie-fest "March of the Penguins", the land itself - eerily majestic, filled with wonder and foreboding - has been captured impeccably by so many documentarians. Most recently and powerfully, Werner Herzog delivered the extraordinary Oscar-nominated "Encounters at the End of the World" which focused on those edgy individuals who are drawn to living and working in an environment that is an inhospitable to man as it is a magnet for those who are drawn to its terrible beauty. Surely within the context of a murder mystery like "Whiteout", character would have been a fine anchor to root the story in, but the picture is strictly by-the-numbers in this regard - so much so, that any episode of "Perry Mason" or "Columbo" would have far more interesting character flourishes in one or two minutes of screen time than "Whiteout" has throughout its entire and overlong 101 minutes.
In terms of providing a visual treat to dazzle the eyes, Antarctica is, without question, the Earth's most barren, mysterious, and yet, strangely beautiful continent. A series of islands surrounding a mountainous primary landmass, the Antarctic is topographically not unlike that of the Andes Mountain range in South America, but with one vital difference - Antarctica, unlike the Andes, is buried under an average of one mile of ice. As such, and to coin part of a phrase from W.C. Fields in "The Fatal Glass of Beer", Antarctica is fit for neither man, nor beast - and in spite of its similarities to the Andes, it's definitely no indigenous home to happy, hopping, peak-gambolling mountain-goats and llamas. Its environment (darkness for six months of the year and temperatures that can get as low as those on the moons of Jupiter) is not unlike that of Van Helsing brandishing a crucifix to all those who seek to suck whatever lifeblood it has to offer. I'm one of them, but only in spirit. I've never had the guts to take the Antarctic plunge. Visiting Churchill, Manitoba to see polar bears and to be in the sub-zero northern town where Powell/Pressburger imagined how Nazis might infiltrate North America in their terrific WWII propaganda film "The 49th Parallel" is as inhospitable a world as I've ever brought myself to experience (unless you count the horrifying and decidedly inhospitable night I once spent in Tuscaloosa, Alabama - but that, I'm afraid, is another story.).
This, of course, is what makes Antarctica a superb setting for dramatic motion pictures. It's desolate and beautiful and draws very unique individuals to live and work there. Sadly, much of the dramatic work has been of the "Happy Feet" ilk with the insufferable dancing penguins or, God help us, the surfing penguins in the execrable "Surf's Up". And "Whiteout" errs even more egregiously in that it chooses some of the more uninteresting stand-in locations - they all look cold, but have no real dichotomous terror and beauty.
The best dramatic rendering of the bitterness of Antarctica is unquestionably the profoundly moving 1948 Ealing Studios picture, "Scott of the Antarctic" which features John Mills and a stalwart supporting cast recreating the first ill-fated real-life search for the South Pole. Shot in technicolor and filmed on location in Norway, it's a classic example of British cinema at its finest and during a period of rebirth in the U.K.'s national cinema following World War II. Most importantly, it blends excellent location selection in Norway mixed with effective studio work. "Whiteout" feels like it could have been shot just outside any major northern city. It wasn't, of course, but its filmmakers clearly had no eye for the real cinematic joys inherent in recreating Antarctica.
Then, there is John Carpenter's "The Thing", a true horror classic (and maybe one of the best films of the latter half of the 20th century) - nasty, relentless, grim and endowed with a 70s sensibility amidst the early 80s explosions of stunning makeup effects which, all contribute to making it the finest picture - NOT based on fact - to ever be set in Antarctica. Based on the story "Who Goes There?" and filmed once before by Christian Nyby in the 50s (and under the watchful eye of producer Howard Hawks), Carpenter's "The Thing" centres on the high levels of testosterone on the all-male crew who live on a tiny Antarctic research base as they are plagued, not just by the land itself, but by an utterly grotesque alien monster that could ONLY have survived undetected for in a place like Antarctica. And THIS is something truly cool to imagine - assuming our world HAS been visited by extraterrestrials, Antarctica makes a lot of sense for either a crash landing or even a place of repose for such visitors since it is not only isolated, but bears an ungodly temperature that resembles other worlds in our own solar system.
Even the stupid, but watchable "AVP: Alien vs. Predator" began with the cool idea of an archeological dig at the bottom of the earth that yielded the fruit of the title monsters before amiably, but rather one-notedly descending into Toho-styled monster battles. It might not have had the depth of character inherent in Carpenter's work, but at least it had a fun, pulpy sense of spectacle and not the dour, humourless, plodding approach of "Whiteout".
The fact that "AVP: Alien vs. Predator" is actually better than "Whiteout" should give you an idea how pathetic "Whiteout" actually is.
First and foremost, "Whiteout" fails on a level of narrative. As a murder mystery, it is so bone-headedly obvious who-actually-dunnit. The recipe begins with such ingredients as a police officer with a past she's trying to escape (Beckinsdale) who seems to be surrounded by one asshole after another - save, of course, for the friendly medical officer (Tom Skerrit). So, within fifteen minutes of the picture beginning, you do the math. Murders + every character is an asshole + kindly doctor = Who dunnit? Who else, indeed? It's entirely obvious. And since we know, almost from the beginning who the killer is (not intentional, just the product of bad writing and direction), we at least need a rollercoaster ride to make it all worth the predictable slog. "Whiteout" has nothing going for it in this respect. Purportedly directed by Dominic Sena, the hack whose claim to fame is the dreadful "Swordfish" wherein Halle Berry exposed her magnificent breasts, the movie limps and stutters along in a ho-hum by-the-numbers fashion until the I-saw-that-coming-90-minutes-ago climax.
Beckinsdale is, as always, magnificent scenery (rivalling the dull northern Canadian locations the filmmakers have chosen to use), but she is so stern and humourless that all one can do is admire the wardrobe glued onto her. It's not all her fault. Someone had to write this dull character - in addition to all the other dull characters in the movie. There's this almost by-rote approach to character that suggests how everyone who comes to Antarctica is trying to escape something and/or is just plain crazy. This is so dull and unimaginative and the result of writing that is rooted, not in any sense of reality, but in cliche. Far more interesting is to see people who fit Antarctica like a glove. Then again, for that to work, one needs a director with some visual flourish to tie in just the right physical exterior locations into the narrative - locations that represent a state of mind as much as they do a sense of place.
And, by the way, northern Canada has great locations to stand-in for Antarctica, but it doesn't seem like anyone bothered to try and find which ones they were and furthermore, to match them to the psychological complexity of the characters and narrative.
Oops, I forgot - there is NO psychological complexity. There's no surprise, no drama and no sense of pace.
There is, however, an opportunity to just skip seeing this movie and instead, see some of the pictures mentioned above - they're good, if not great pictures, but they also manage to capture the physical beauty and horror of Antarctica in ways "Whiteout" doesn't even bother trying to imagine.
'Whiteout" is available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Warner Home Video