First off, in the interest of full disclosure, I should tell you that back in the late 1990s I was a comic book editor, and you'll find my name in the editorial credits in both of the Whiteout comic books. Written by Greg Rucka and illustrated by Steve Lieber, Whiteout was among the first breakout publications from the then-fledgling indie, Oni Press, which I was a part of. So, this puts me in a unique position when watching the movie adaptation of Whiteout. As someone who knows it as well as I do, for someone who invested time in the creation of the original story, no one would be surprised if I hated the film. That said, I also have zero to gain financially from the film's success, nor from any book sales that are a byproduct of the same. That means I also have no reason to pretend I liked it.
And I did like it. While far from a perfect film--far from perfect--Whiteout is an entertaining action flick that is mostly a solid adaptation of an exceptional work of comic book literature. Yes, the book is better, but when isn't it?
The basic rundown is this: U.S. Marshal Carrie Stetko (Kate Beckinsale) is the law down in Antarctica. It's a boring beat, the tiny population of scientists and workers not having much opportunity to get up to any real trouble out in the ice and the snow, and not really a place an officer like Carrie usually ends up by choice. Carrie has been on the bottom of the world for two years, having gone there as self-punishment for mistakes made back home in Miami. Her time is almost up. It's a matter of days before she will go home again--two days, to be exact, because that's when winter will hit, plunging the continent into six months of darkness.
Naturally, this does not go smoothly. This kind of thing never does. Before Carrie can hand in her badge, a dead body is spotted out in the middle of nowhere. Along with her pal Doc (Tom Skerritt), the local medical practitioner (hence the nickname), and their pilot Delfy (Columbus Short), Carrie goes to retrieve the gruesome corpse. The deceased is a geologist from a nearby base camp, and when Carrie checks on why no one has reported him missing, she finds the entire crew has bugged out. It's a fishy situation, particularly since the man's death has been ruled a homicide. Further investigation leads Carrie to another dead man and she gets attacked for her troubles. Further complicating things, since this is the first-ever murder on Antarctica, and since the whole of the land mass is international territory and owned by no one country, a special agent from the U.N., Robert Pryce (Gabriel Macht), has been sent in to aid in the search for the killer. But can he be trusted? Carrie isn't so sure, especially when the stakes are raised. These guys have been killing each other for some unknown cargo found in a Russian plane that crashed into the ice fifty years ago.
I won't kid you, Whiteout starts out very poorly. It opens with one of those standard, boneheaded scenes where we are shown the Russian plane crashing, thus removing all surprise when Carrie and Pryce find its looted hull later on. If Hollywood remade The Maltese Falcon today, we would likely be treated to watching the smelting process or something, because God forbid they not announce every little reveal ahead of time. This is one of the first of many mistakes that director Dominic Sena (Swordfish) makes in the first act. The script by Jon and Erich Hoeber telegraphs too many plot elements, flashbacks to Carrie's past come too fast and too often (and with bad digital effects, to boot), and let's not even discuss that totally unnecessary scene of Kate Beckinsale stripping and climbing into the shower. ("Look, boys! She's still sexy under that big coat!") There is an obviousness to how Sena handles a lot of the movie that should leave most viewers feeling insulted. He can't trust you, for instance, to understand the importance of Carrie pulling her gun out of the safe, he has to zoom in and show it to you in slow motion, a trick that Sena pulls so regularly, I'd believe him if he called it a visual motif. Not that his approach to the audio is any better. Sena finds his perfect musical partner in John Frizzell (Primeval), whose on-the-nose orchestration underscores everything, and then underscores it a little more, like triple-underlining a word to make sure you get it. ("This is important, you dummies, so pay attention!")
Thankfully, the loaded directorial style ceases to matter once the story really gets going. About 20 minutes or so into the picture, when Carrie goes to Vostok in search of one of the culprits and ends up on the wrong end of an ice axe, Whiteout starts to heat up and only steadily increases from there. The fundamental story Greg Rucka concocted for the comic book is a very straightforward mystery. Who is killing these guys? Why are they killing them? And where are they hiding the loot? Period. After the struggles of the set-up, Sena and his team have the good sense to stay out of the way and let the story do its thing--even if they do only work with the barest of the plot's bones. Despite knowing who Carrie should be watching out for, I still felt the suspense, I was ready to go along with her search, and most of the action sequences had the appropriate punch.
Kate Beckinsale makes for a good Carrie Stetko. Fans of the character know she is a pretty tough gal, more than capable of holding her own. Beckinsale doesn't quite have the physical presence to match the way Steve Lieber drew her in the comics, but she gets around that by playing Carrie as a woman regaining her confidence and is thus able to take ownership of the role along the way. The actress and the part grow together. Gabriel Macht doesn't fare as well. Comics readers will know that his character is the biggest change from Whiteout the comic to Whiteout the movie. In the book, Robert Pryce is Lily Sharpe, a female agent from the British secret service. No one should really be surprised that a movie studio decided they didn't want two female leads in a crime picture, so most of us have already come to grips with that change. At times, there is a little bit of the usual "big man save little girl" nonsense, but that fades before too long. My real problem is that Pryce is terribly underwritten, there's not much for him to do but stand around and be handsome and vaguely mysterious. Macht tries his best with what he's given, but you can only grasp sand so long before it all runs through your fingers. (One positive: they haven't shoehorned a romantic plot into the narrative. That dude was way too boring for Carrie Stetko, anyway.)
All in all, Whiteout is not the movie it could have been, but it's also not as bad as fans of the comics might have feared it would be. Boiled down, the movie has a really good script that is handicapped by subpar direction, and additions and tweaks to the original plot that are both good and bad but mostly neutral. Put a better leader at the head of this crew, and Whiteout could have been something special. I suppose that's really a testament to what Rucka and Lieber did all those years ago: craft a story of such quality that even mediocrity can't ruin it completely. The more the original vision took over, the more I found myself sucked into Whiteout. By the final scenes, I was totally on board and willing to forgive (though not forget) the mistakes that started the whole thing off.
Though I wanted an A-picture, I got a B (maybe even a B-), and in the end, that's still passing. An intelligent thriller has been transformed in one that's merely serviceable. Which is pretty close to high praise coming from me. We're talking about one of my favorite things here, and like Carrie Stetko herself, I was not prepared to let anyone off easy.
For those who have never read Whiteout, you can sample the first issue for free from Steve Lieber's website.