A Murder Mystery… In Antarctica!

09/11/2009 4:00 AM |

Directed by Dominic Sena

Like Christopher Nolan’s Insomnia, Whiteout, a frost-blooded murder mystery, transfers the Scandinavian trend in cold-clime detective fiction—albeit more prevalent in novels like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo than in film—to American soil: though here we’re not in Palin country like in Mr. Batman’s Pacino-led remake, but on a U.S.-controlled research base in Antarctica. As such, the film evokes another recent trend: the global warming horror movie.

Though global warming gets namechecked only once in Whiteout, and off-handedly, it’s the ever-present subtext; the film transforms the culture’s climate change anxiety into a polar panic, like the recent The Last Winter. There’s no supernatural element here, no mystical spirit warriors freed from their icy prisons like in Larry Fessenden’s gonzo allegory. But this film’s murder rate is unbound when a buried artifact is loosed from its frozen tomb, the message being: what’s buried ought stay buried; there’s nothing but trouble under the ice—so don’t let it melt!

To be sure, Whiteout is in no way ice-, er, ground-breaking. But, surprisingly, it’s quite effective as a whodunit; while director Sena keeps the story moving, most of the thanks belongs to the screenwriters, the Bros. Hoeber and Hayes, whose mystery unfolds with the efficiency of a Raymond Chandler novel, punctuated with a few thrilling and unnerving, if sometimes confusing, set pieces: a body found in a remote section of Antarctica sets off an investigation that unravels piecemeal a complex international and geological conspiracy involving missing persons, Arctic ice-pick murders, FBI corruption, black-market bomb fuel and Soviet mining operations.

The plot unfurls pleasantly, like beach fiction (with a chance of frostbite)—at least until the mystery stops short to stumble toward an unfortunately predictable and belabored conclusion. In fact, there’s a lot about Whiteout that irks, despite its pleasurable pacing and plotting, such as its CSI style and the habit of its characters to announce the obvious. Not least, while watching it, you could tick off every item in the “What Makes a Movie Conservative?” checklist. Is essential information gleaned only through the threat of torture? Yup. Are the heroes cops and the villains scientists? Yup. Are women mistreated every step of the way? You betcha!

Kate Beckinsale, who stars as a policewoman, gets quite the drubbing from all directions: criminals beat her up in flashback, the camera watches her undress (not five minutes in), and the elements claim her fingers. Whiteout, after all, is set in the most severe of natural climates, and its sense of place is alarmingly palpable, as when a gloveless hand pulls away from an outside door and a few layers of skin come off along with it. Sena is clearly titillated by such gory moments (there are more!), but he turns out not to be a moron; at least, he takes no shortcuts in the minutiae of Arctic-base life, especially the laborious clipping of carabiners to ropes that’s necessary whenever someone goes outside. Melting ice caps are the stuff of nightmares, but Whiteout, like Encounters at the End of the World, proves that vast, wind-governed plains of solid, featureless ice can be scary, too.

Opens September 11