Throughout Whiteout—an Antarctica-based thriller based on a Greg Rucka-penned comics series—it’s generally pretty easy to tell when the four-man screenwriting team thinks the plot makes sense, because they spell it out in vast detail, not trusting their viewers to follow along. Onscreen text unnecessarily explains that Antarctica is the coldest, most isolated place on earth. Characters pointedly explain things that everyone in the room can see. Flashbacks repeat events that just happened, for anyone who missed them. But when the plot gets openly ridiculous—say, when protagonist Kate Beckinsale glances around a complicated crime scene blurred by decades of accumulated rime and frost, and instantly deduces everything that happened there in unerring detail, the film whisks forward as if embarrassed and eager to sweep the story under the rug.
Which is too bad, because Whiteout’s intriguing setting and storyline would be gripping if Beckinsale’s Sherlocking around wasn’t so glossed-over, or alternately spoon-fed to the audience. Presented with a frozen, mangled corpse—Antarctica’s very first murder victim—U.S. Marshal Beckinsale has to unravel the mystery before most of her suspects evacuate the continent as the long polar winter begins. Horrific weather and lethal temperatures make travel around the local outposts as hazardous as in any outer-space thriller. Bodies pile up, and the arrival of suspicious-acting outsider Gabriel Macht (star of the misbegotten comics adaptation The Spirit) complicates the investigation. With Beckinsale simultaneously battling man and nature, there’s some serious potential for a moody psychological thriller in the vein of the original Insomnia, or at least a scary environment-aided horror film like The Thing.
But director Dominic Sena, who normally deals in visually dynamic, broad action (in Swordfish and Gone In Sixty Seconds, for instance) rarely seems to know what to do with his claustrophobic interior settings and threatening darkness, and he only once uses them to real advantage. The exterior sequences are vivid by comparison, but while he makes whiteout conditions look terrifying, they hinder viewers almost as much as the characters; the inevitable big showdown is a visual muddle of thickly blowing snow and identical-looking people in parkas battling over identical-looking safety lines. Briefly, not knowing who has the upper hand is exciting, but as the fight wears on, it becomes irritating. Then again, the way the rest of the story goes, we’re probably lucky Beckinsale doesn’t narrate the whole thing to make sure we don’t misinterpret a moment.