Buckle your seatbelts for Whiteout, the thrilling story of the brand-name office supply invented by George Kloosterhouse and Edwin Johanknecht. No, wait, sorry: that’s Wite-Out. My bad. Let me reassure you: the mystery thriller Whiteout, directed by Dominic Sena (Gone in 60 Seconds, Swordfish), is at least 10% more exciting than correction fluid.
But like an office supply, Whiteout has been sitting on a shelf for a couple of years, an indication that it doesn’t have much use. Based on the comic book mini-series written by Greg Rucka and illustrated by Steve Lieber, the story opens in 1957, with an action sequence involving Cold War Russians. What they leave behind in the Antarctic ice sets off a murder mystery amongst the research bases dotted around the South Pole.
Since Dr. Jerri Nielsen made headlines treating herself for cancer while effectively stranded at the Amundsen-Scott research facility, the scary side of Antarctica has seen a resurgence in the public consciousness. Along these lines, you’ll see no penguins marching through Whiteout, which follows U.S. Marshal Carrie Stetko (Kate Beckinsale) through a murder investigation that takes a physical and psychic toll. Though she has a foot out the door as the base staff gears up for a seasonal exodus, the discovery of a dead geologist in the middle of nowhere threatens to keep Stetko on ice for an additional six months.
Why is Stetko in Antarctica in the first place? She’s on the run from her past, particularly a botched capture that haunts her in a series of flashbacks that make her question her knack for discerning suspect behavior. It’s her own personal whiteout, to match the no-visibility snowstorm base doctor John Fury (Tom Skerritt) warns about: “an unholy set of weather conditions converge and the world falls away.” Naturally, just such blizzards kick up at the least opportune moments, like every time the pick-axe-wielding killer turns up.
Unlike in the comic, which partners Stetko with another female agent, the film pairs Stetko with suspect men. She immediately distrusts UN investigator Robert Pryce (Gabriel Macht), warning her pilot Delfy (Columbus Short) to keep an eye on him. There’s also a base dominated by hardy-partying men, most notably randy Aussie Haden (Alex O'Loughlin). Unfortunately, seasoned mystery watchers will anticipate the late-breaking twist identifying the last culprit standing, and screenwriters Jon & Erich Hoeber and Chad & Carey Hayes drop us into plot holes as deep as an ice shaft.
Sena brings some nominal visual flair to a story named for seeing nothing, but it’s a discouraging sign when he insultingly makes Stetko’s first order of business to strip down for a steamy shower (sorry, guys: the “some nudity” promised by the rating refers to a frat-like streak). Whiteout is a sporadically tense little mystery in a novel setting, but there’s just not enough of interest here to justify the expense and inconvenience of a trip to the theater. If you’re in need of an Antarctic-thriller fix, rent The Thing instead.
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]