— While it’s never a 100 percent guarantee of disaster, the presence of four credited screenwriters on a movie is usually an indication that you’re about to spend two hours with the proverbial camel from the committee that tried to make a horse. One such ungainly beast is “Whiteout,” which takes a tautly suspenseful graphic novel featuring a strong and unique female lead and turns it into a routine thriller with a unique setting: Antarctica.
It’s three days before the personnel at the U.S. research station are getting ready to ship out for “winter” — at the South Pole, that means six solid months of darkness — when U.S. Marshal Carrie Stetko (Kate Beckinsale) finds a dead body out on the ice. Once Stetko realizes that the geologist’s death wasn’t accidental, she’s suddenly got the continent’s first homicide on her hands.
And if the impending arrival of winter wasn’t complicating matters enough, there’s also a huge storm heading their way, which will necessitate locking down and evacuating the base.
Even with all this built-in suspense, director Dominic Sena (“Swordfish”) and his quaternity of screenwriters (adapting the graphic novel by Greg Rucka and Steve Lieber) can’t make the whodunit aspect of the story particularly interesting — they’ve dug themselves into an ice pit by only creating about a half-dozen notable characters with significant speaking roles, so it’s mathematically simple to figure out who’s a bad guy and who isn’t.
The adapters have also turned Stetko from a no-nonsense cop with a sense of humor to a crybaby haunted by a drug arrest gone bad. The watering-down of the character isn’t helped by Beckinsale, who brings her usual blankness to the role. (Whatever happened to the promising young actress from “Much Ado About Nothing,” “Cold Comfort Farm” and “The Last Days of Disco” that’s made her so lifeless in crap like “Pearl Harbor,” “Click” and the “Underworld” movies?)
Gabriel Macht as a U.N. investigator and Tom Skerritt, doing his best Kris Kristofferson impersonation, as the base doctor and Carrie’s confidant, don’t seem to be making much effort either, although Columbus Short (“Stomp the Yard”) and Shawn Doyle (“Big Love”) at least try to mold actual human beings out of the sketchy characters they’ve been given.
Giving “Whiteout” its due, there are two sequences featuring Carrie battling an ice ax–wielding killer (while they’re both tethered to guidelines) that achieve moments of heart-in-the-throat suspense. But they’re overshadowed by scenes of people stating the obvious (“This was a cargo plane!”), gratuitous cheesecakery (the first thing Carrie does in the movie is strip and take a shower), and a lack of attention to detail, like the flashback to 1957 where all the Russian Air Force pilots have very contemporary hairstyles.
If you want the real “Whiteout” experience, just read the book. Or ask the manager of your local 7-Eleven if you can play Clue in the beer cooler.