Sub-Zero Comic Book Thriller Hits the Big Screen
Friday, September 11, 2009
If you didn’t get enough of a small town law enforcement officer battling icy conditions and dealing with dead bodies piling up in “30 Days of Night,” then you’ll have another chance at a sub-zero thriller with “Whiteout” (opening September 11 throughout San Diego). It is based on the Oni Press comic by Greg Rucka and Steve Lieber.
“30 Days of Night” and “Whiteout” have a few things in common: both are set in chilly climates with characters about to be trapped by the onset on winter; both involve small communities disrupted by brutal murders; and both have been butchered by Hollywood. “30 Days of Night,” the comic, served up a claustrophobic, tense vampire tale drawn in gritty style. The film got the look of the vampires right but had no feel for the location or the tension inherent in the plot’s conceit of dealing with vampires and 30 days of night.
Now I haven’t read “Whiteout” in its entirety but I frequently find myself picking it up at the comic book store because the images (check out a preview of the comic at Oni Press) always draw me in; I love the texture of the snow and the way illustrator Steve Lieber uses white. And writer Greg Rucka does have a succinct way with words.
“Bottom of the world. Antarctica. The Ice. No place to go but up.”
That’s a far better intro to “Whiteout” than the title card at the beginning of the film informing us that we are somewhere in the Southern Hemisphere. The text that opens Rucka’s comic is far more evocative of not only the location you are in but also the character’s perspective on it. It even has a bit of a film noir sound to it. But for the film, we are merely stuck in the Southern Hemisphere and in a bad film.
Once again I wonder why Hollywood buys properties and then seems to discard so much of the source material. Visually, the film of “Whiteout” looks muddy, swapping lovely bright shots of snowy landscapes from the opening with gray, slushy images as winter approaches. Snow and climate here do not become a character in the same way that they do in the panels of the comic. Characters are also changed, and instead of two females in the lead roles, Kate Beckinsale is the sole female in the film. She plays U.S. Marshal Carrie Stetko who has taken the post at the bottom of the world to escape some bad memories that keep coming back to haunt her in lame flashbacks. As she prepares to resign and go back to warmer climes, she is faced with a murder, the first apparently on her watch. She faces the obstacle of a hostile environment and the deadline placed on her by the onset of winter when everyone who doesn’t want to be stuck in Antarctica for the entire season must leave. So with a very limited set of suspects and not a whole lot of places for them to go, Stetko must discover who the killer is and what he was killing for.
Most people in the audience will have this crime solved well before Stetko because director Dominic Sena (who’s given us “Gone in Sixty Seconds” and “Swordfish”) directs this thriller in such pedestrian fashion that he might as well stick post-its on the characters labeling them as “killer,” “victim,” “red herring,” and “token black.” Sena proves to be inept in all departments. Visually the film captures none of the feel of the environment and he could have just as easily been shooting in rainy Seattle or muggy Miami. He has an opportunity to give the film a texture based on the setting – fresh white snow, frozen tundra, fierce blizzards, and the whiteout of the title -- but he has no clue how to convey the defining features of this cold location. The recent film “Blindness” used whites in a far more evocative and intriguing way than Sena ever manages to muster here. Sena has no creative vision and completely wastes the opportunity to exploit his unique setting for a visually impressive thriller.
Tension is another vital element in a thriller and again Sena blows it. The environment dictates certain things that change the dynamics of a usual crime procedural. Out in the frozen arctic even a marshal in pursuit of a killer has to take a moment to latch on to a tie line to insure that she doesn’t get blown away by powerful winds or lost in conditions where you cannot see six inches in front of her face. Neither killer nor cop can move quickly or efficiently under these conditions and rather than play up the unique nature of this, Sena tries instead to make it look like every other actioner out there. He over cuts the action, employs shakycam, and tries to pump up the intensity with fast-paced music. It’s ridiculous with all the elements fighting each other.
“Whiteout” (rated R for violence, grisly images, brief strong language and some nudity) offers nothing to satisfy fans of the comic and nothing to satisfy even the casual filmgoer just looking for diversion or escape from the heat. And as some of my male friends pointed out, there’s not even a naked Kate Beckinsale (you can spy her through frosted glass in a shower though) to compensate you for the hours you wasted in the theater. Once again I would suggest seeking out the comic, in fact I think I will finally try to make time to read the entire comic.
Companion viewing: “Encounters at the End of the World,” “30 Days of Night” (only if you want to compare bad comic book adaptations), “Transsiberian,” "The Last Winter" (begins well but falters at end)