Monday, September 14, 2009

Whiteout


So you're going to make a thriller about a serial killer, and you decide to hire a director who's worked in that area before. Good idea. You choose someone who hasn't actually made a movie in eight years, and his last film was Swordfish. Bad idea. Admittedly, Dominic Sena did make Kalifornia, one of the classics of serial killer films and arguably a flat-out classic of cinema itself, but anybody who takes nearly a decade off from work is going to be rusty, and anyone sixteen years removed from their last serial killer movie is going to have forgotten some of the steps in that all-too-easily screwed-up dance. Such is evident in Sena's return to filmmaking, the snowbound Antarctic thriller Whiteout.

I'd go so far as to argue that Sena has forgotten everything he ever knew about making a movie. I've heard of ring rust, but this is complete ring decay; the direction of Whiteout ranges from merely pedestrian to "Ed Wood would laugh that off a screen". Sometimes you feel like you're watching a really bad episode of CSI: New York with the generic "dramatic" camera pans and generally flat and lifeless photography, and other times you can't tell that you're actually watching any discernible "thing" at all. I can respect the fact that Sena had to incorporate the violent snowstorms typical of Antarctica into his exteriors, but come on dude, you don't have to crank the snow machine up so high that we can't see the actors! Even the film's climactic action scene where a main character dies is obscured by massive snowfall and excessive wind. You can just barely sketch out what happens, but you don't really see it so much as you imagine what it must have looked like in your head.

Luckily, you don't care all that much because the plot isn't the least bit compelling. Whiteout is an appropriate title for a film that feels as though lots and lots of that particular product has been applied to it's screenplay. After a merely boring first act, Whiteout plunges into befuddling second and third acts where the plot shifts to things that really don't matter because all the scenes establishing their importance are simply missing, if they ever existed at all. The film starts off with a decent enough premise: the US Marshall assigned to maintain law and order at a science station in Antarctica is preparing to retire (in two days, as cliche as it gets), when she finds her stay on the job indefinitely extended when an incoming plane spots a corpse impossibly lying out in the middle of nowhere, too far from any building for the person to have walked there without freezing to death far sooner. Soon thereafter, the Marshall receives a distress call from the dead person's home base begging her to come. When she arrives, the only person there is dead and a masked killer armed with a pick axe reveals himself and chases the Marshall out.

That's all fine. It's a perfectly good set-up for a whodunnit about the mystery corpse and how it got there, and who this masked madman is. Theoretically, this could be compelling stuff. And then you get to the second and third acts where the plot is suddenly all about a Soviet plane buried under the ice which seems to have recently been excavated and plundered. Sound confusing? Oh yeah, of course it does. I thought I was watching Smilla's Sense of Snow all over again, that awful movie where the plot changes from "how'd that little boy fall off the roof" to "how'd those alien worms get under the Greenland ice?" with no good explanation. It's a problem of two separate plot idea that were never fully fleshed out being smashed together to make one movie and save some time. Imagine Silence of the Lambs mashed up with X-Files: Fight the Future and you've come close to Whiteout, except for the fact that those two movies are far better in every regard.

Now, even the worst of plot can sometimes be saved by good performances. Even if the material is downright goofy, one or two solid, passionate performances from actors who feel it can make a movie better. Whiteout unfortunately finds itself saddled with Kate Beckinsale and Gabriel Macht. One of the first scenes in the movie finds the camera following behind our US Marshall (dressed like Margie from Fargo) as she walks into the science base. They keep teasing that she'll show her face and you start to wonder who it could be. Is it going to be Frances McDormand? Maybe It's Jodie Foster, she played one hell of a cop in Silence of the Lambs. And then she turns around and it's Kate Beckinsale and I find myself letting out a groan. Like oh, that's too bad. Being a director and finding out that your star is Kate Beckinsale must be like finding out your brain has an inoperable tumor: you're a goner. As promising as Ms. Beckinsale may have been in her early films like The Last Days of Disco, her work in the current decade has made her out as one of the lamest actresses out there. As fine as she may look in leather, the Underworld films have done zilch for convincing anyone that she knows what she's doing any more, and Whiteout is another step in the wrong direction. Carrie Stetko is supposed to be a hardened, bitter cop who's finally going to retire after two years in self-exile in Antarctica after she lost her shit when she had to kill her partner back home in Miami when he tried to free a criminal they were transporting in exchange for a bribe. Beckinsale fails to convince us that she is bitter, that she is hard, that she's at all messed up over her partner, that she is anywhere near old enough to consider retirement, or that she is in any way proud to be in this movie. She just walks around looking bored and embarrassed the whole time. How bad must your film be if Kate Beckinsale thinks she's above it?

As for Gabriel Macht, you'll remember him as the douhebaggiest superhero ever in last year's disastrous The Spirit. And just in case you were thinking his terrible performance in that film was the fault of Frank Miller's inept directing, Mr. Macht proves you wrong by utterly sucking in Whiteout, too. The guy's just boring, that's all there is to it. He's a lifeless non-personality with a monotone voice and dead eyes who thinks growing out a five o'clock shadow will make him seem gritty, intense, and world weary. It makes him look like a hobo. In the role of a UN officer sent to handle the case, Macht is simply unbelievable. Which is to say that you'll be thinking "I don't believe for one second that this guy would ever make it as a UN officer". The guy's a dolt who wanders into bad situations, can't think very hard, and is generally an idiot. Take for example a scene where he and Beckinsale are trapped inside the plane after an avalanche, and his solution is to just blow shit up to punch a hole in the roof and hope they'll blow all the snow off, too. Sure, it works in the end (otherwise the film would be over, and they aren't having that kind of mercy on us), but he had no reason to expect it would. The guy's just a dummy. Way to bounce back, Gabriel.

But when it comes to idiots in Whiteout, the grand prize goes to the killer. As if the guy didn't look goofy enough covered head to toe in ski gear and wearing an eyehole-less mask with ski goggles over top (how does he see?), the guy makes an even bigger buffoon of himself whenever he's called upon to move. I can't believe this guy ever successfully killed someone, his every blow telegraphed from a mile away by bringing his arm all the way back and then bringing it forward with a huge, wild swing. Whenever we actually see him attacking people, he always misses and his momentum carries him ass over head to land flat on his face. On top of that, he constantly trips over his own feet and in outdoor scenes he gets knocked over by the wind, while tiny Kate Beckinsale is able to move freely without so much as her hair getting blown about much of the time. They should have dubbed in a soundbite of Thelma from Scooby Doo saying "Oh, my glasses!" over every scene this guy is in because he is constantly on the ground fumbling for his lost axe. The movie expects us to take this guy seriously, but all I could do was laugh at him.

As Whiteout progressed through it's final act with the killer captured and the plane booty revealed and one final meaningless plot twist to make you care even less, I went from confused to perversely amused and back to confused before finally walking out just bored. The movie's bad, but not bad enough to consistently enrage or entertain me. The moments of "so bad it's good" and "so bad it's pissing me off" are few and far between and are overwhelmed by many, many moments of "meh". The director's off his game, the screenplay is an obvious studio rewrite by some hired hack and the actors don't give a fuck.

Wow, this really is CSI: New York. I suppose the obligatory The Who theme song would have to be "Tommy" because

That deaf, dumb, and blind kid sure swings a mean pickaxe

1 comment:

yiggm1984 said...

To discount Beckinsale as an actress is a mistake. Go watch Snow Angels and Nothing But the Truth.