Whiteout

Working stiffs, how many times has this happened to you? It’s been one of those spirit-deadening days–the kind that’s actually much worse for being so unremarkable — and somehow, just as the end of your interminable shift is in sight, the boss calls and reminds you that today’s the day you also have to mop the floor. Or maybe he sends the insidious 4:55 email: “Just need your detailed comments on this 98-page memo — client’s expecting it in the morning.” Or something. It’s always something. And before you know it, the days like this turn into weeks like this, which turn into months, and maybe years.

The movies want to sympathize, but their tendency to exaggerate the problem only makes it worse. To take a recent example, think of that poor Helium-3 miner just about to wrap up three years worth of solitary labor on the far side of the moon when all hell broke loose. To take a current example, think of this poor U.S. marshal stationed in Antarctica and just about to get on the last plane back to civilization when a frozen mangled corpse arrives to imply that murder is afoot.

It’s like: DUDE.

Readers of the “Whiteout” comic, by writer Greg Rucka and artist Steve Lieber, will have seen this one coming–although maybe not in this particular way. These readers will know Marshal Carrie Stetko to be a stocky, not entirely glamorous woman. Perhaps they will also know, from the precedent of Frances McDormand as Police Chief Marge Gunderson in “Fargo,” that the sight of such a figure lumbering through snowy hinterlands solving crimes has a distinctly cinematic appeal. But these very observant readers also will deduce — from the preposterously protracted moment early on when Kate Beckinsale peels off her parka, peels off her sweater, peels off her tank top and pants, slowly bends over to turn on the shower, and peels off her bra — that the Carrie Stetko of the “Whiteout” movie is rather a different type of woman.

The comic had another female character, but the movie, directed by Dominic Sena and written by Jon and Erich Hoeber and Chad and Carey Hayes, has turned her into a man: a U.N. investigator portrayed with cursory intensity and a very deep voice by the chiseled actor Gabriel Macht. Beckinsale’s Stetko isn’t sure she trusts him, but on at least one occasion she might want to kiss him. Come to think of it, readers of the “Whiteout” comic may have seen this coming in exactly this particular way.

But at least the “Whiteout” movie also has Tom Skerritt, as a physician and father figure whom Stetko is sure she trusts. “Always a dull moment!” he perceptively quips, exuding paternal charm so conspicuously that you can’t help but suspect he’s either going to die or get up to no good. Somebody has to.

To be sure, a no-place-to-hide thriller set in the abysmal tundra has much potential. Even wised-up readers of the “Whiteout” comic are within their rights to hope the movie will manage something like the legendarily counterintuitive chase-scene claustrophobia of “North by Northwest,” in which Cary Grant got dogged by a crop duster in a wide-open field in broad daylight. That was even more thrilling than the proverbial dark alley. And much more thrilling, unfortunately, predictably, than the movie version of “Whiteout.”

With John Frizzell’s score constantly and strenuously suggesting an appropriate mood for any given moment, the cliches signal their arrival from roughly a mile away, then slowly approach, then play out, then get explained. “Whiteout” is a movie in which a character might be seen in a flashback, killing someone, and then say, “I killed him.” Or holding an armful of kittens, about which someone else will say, “They’re kittens.”

(Here I’ve substituted “kittens” for the actual thing being held, because mentioning the actual thing would be a spoiler. I was going to substitute “jellybeans” for the actual thing, but then it occurred to me that there is another scene in which jellybeans do indeed appear, and somebody does indeed explain that they are jellybeans. Also, I like kittens.)

This expository loquacity carries over into the screen-text captions that kick off key sequences, providing not just the name of a given ice-station locale but also its exact latitude, longitude, air temperature and wind speed. Really, it’s too much trouble; one strategically timed “Antarctica: Freezing, Boring, Deadly!” within the movie’s first few minutes would have covered everything nicely.

But that would mean everybody getting to leave work early. Nobody gets to leave work early. We only get to hope we will, then learn otherwise. For film critics, it’s that moment when the lights come up after an hour and a half of mediocrity and any sense of relief is swiftly crushed by an inner voice saying, “Now I have to write about this.”

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