U.S. Marshall Carrie Stetko (Kate Beckinsale) is assigned to the worst post possible, a research base in Antarctica where the only real threat is the unimaginably harsh climate. Each day she conducts basic patrols, occasionally dealing with a misdemeanor. Just as her time at the South Pole about to end, Carrie is suddenly thrust into a murder investigation, following the discovery of a missing geologist’s mangled body. Carrie’s efforts to solve the crime are pressured by the deadline to catch the last plane out—before the six-month winter starts and a huge storm brings the dreaded whiteout.
Based on Greg Rucka and Steve Lieber’s acclaimed 1998 crime comic book series, Whiteout is full of problems. Most strikingly, it fails visually: by definition, a whiteout denotes extremely poor visibility, which might heighten suspense, especially during the impossibly slow “chase” scenes (no one can move very fast bundled up, struggling against 100mph winds and, most laughably, when both hunter and hunted have to stop repeatedly to clamp themselves to ropes so they aren’t blown into the icy oblivion). But this film’s whiteout effect is merely annoying. It’s bad enough we can’t tell which character is which, thanks to all the parkas and goggles—then the furiously swirling snow soon turns confusion into disinterest.
The setting is equally misused. Where are the awe-inspiring Planet Earth-like vistas? Yes, part of the point of Whiteout is the vast and frightening isolation Carrie feels as she struggles to stay alive, but wouldn’t that be better served by landscapes that emphasize the puniness of human life? Instead, the movie evokes the persistent sense that we are stuck on a low-budget soundstage with bargain priced CGI effects trying to make up for it. When pilot Delfy (Columbus Short) professes he will never not feel amazed by the beauty of it all, well, we just have to take his word for it.
Without decent visuals to distract us, we’re left with the paltry plot: the murder isn’t much of a mystery and there is nothing novel about the villain’s motives or the crime’s solution. Perhaps worse, Carrie is rather dull. Yes, she faces the elements with a stoic practicality. She’s smart and quick on her feet when it comes to surviving in this dire environment, determined to take down her target. He is one of various men who seem meant to highlight Carrie’s tough cookie persona: repeatedly, they underestimate her as she rises to every occasion. She is alternately coddled, pitied, protected, and desired—and she resists all of it. Unfortunately, her resistance is undone in that she eventually appears masochistic, defensive, self-involved, and—most damning—incapable of reading the men around her. It turns out Carrie’s exile in Antarctica is self-imposed after a drug bust gone wrong in Miami years earlier, during which she was betrayed by someone she trusted. Flashbacks lay out the whole long-gone scene, juxtaposing a sweatier, sexier Carrie obviously with the current, very chilly Carrie.
At long last, and after she solves a Scooby Doo-level mystery, Carrie comes to the rather mundane realization that she really is a good cop. But throughout the film, she tends to state the obvious, as when she examines the body found on the ice and tells her friend and mentor, John Fury (Tom Skerritt), “This was no accident!” No kidding. Or later, when she and her colleagues find the dead crew of a Russian plane, she announces, “It’s a body!”, as they stand within inches of it. In contrast to Carrie’s thuddingly unnecessary observations, the men are remain generally enigmatic, at least to Carrie. To add insult to injury, for all her brooding and posturing, the men continually and correctly interpret her.