With Kate Beckinsale, Tom Skerritt, Gabriel Macht. Directed by Dominic Sena. Rated R for violence, grisly images, brief strong language and some nudity. 96 minutes.
There are certain books you read to pass the time – on the beach, at the airport, on the daily commute – without any great expectations except to hold your interest enough to keep turning the pages. WHITEOUT, which is based on a graphic novel, is the movie equivalent of a page turner. Indeed, with all the portable options for viewing movies now, it will likely be showing up in those very same places in short order.
“Whiteout” is the sort of murder mystery that’s called “formulaic.” You’ll figure out the mystery long before U.S. Marshal Carrie Stetko (Kate Beckinsale). She’s given a backstory that is slowly revealed and which plays a role in her present predicament. There are a few suspenseful set pieces. Finally everything falls neatly into place and your flight is about to land. Oops.
After a prologue aboard a Russian plane which sets the mystery in motion, we meet Stetko, who is literally and symbolically hanging up her badge, burnt out on the job. Soon a mystery will arise leading her to put it back on. What makes the material interesting enough to become a serviceable thriller is the setting, which is an American research station in Antarctica.
The filmmakers get a lot of mileage out of their location, from the massive approaching storm front to the inhumanly cold temperatures they face every time they leave their facilities. To make the point. Dr. Fury (Tom Skerritt) lectures the new arrivals on the effects of extreme cold after making them take off their outer parkas while standing outside. Stetko will later learn this harsh lesson herself with gruesome consequences when a masked attacker pursues her.
When a body is discovered on the ice pack with no ready explanation as to how it got there, Stetko has to do her job. Who’s responsible for the murder and subsequent attacks is the mystery, and it plays out in brisk fashion, including a three-way fight in whiteout conditions. This is where high winds blow the snow around making it impossible to see anything. People must link themselves to a network of ropes running from building to building if they have any hope of not being blown away or becoming hopelessly lost.
It’s those bits of business, unique to the location, that keep this routine mystery going. The cast is pleasant enough with Beckinsale an attractive and intelligent heroine, Skerritt coasting as the crusty old doctor, and Gabriel Macht as a UN investigator whose appearance brings up Stetko’s fears from the past.
“Whiteout,” in short is an easy enough way to pass time if you’re not too demanding or if the cast or unusual setting piques your interest. That may sound like damning with faint praise, but sometimes a “watch and forget about it” movie is just what we need to distract us from the day’s worries.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books, the most recent being I’ll Have What She’s Having: Behind The Scenes Of The Great Romantic Comedies. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Brookline.