The Revision: Whiteout

In Whiteout by Greg Rucka and Steve Lieber, Carrie Stetko is a U.S. Marshal assigned to Antarctica where a murder has just taken place, and honestly, that’s a good set-up for a murder mystery. It’s a desolate, isolated location with harsh conditions and also offers a limited number of suspects. While Rucka’s writing isn’t going to offer too many surprises for murder mystery readers, there are a few fun twists. Lieber’s artwork reflects the setting — sometimes sketchy, sometimes bright and clear — and it utilizes black and white very well since, well, there’s a lot of snow and ice in Antarctica.

I often find Rucka leans too hard on “I write strong female protagonists!” and Carrie Stetko isn’t an exception there. However, due to the cold environment — both physically and emotionally — she has to be hard and guarded. She’s kind and funny enough but the first volume doesn’t quite give her enough of a personality. I do have to admit it works well enough for the story, though, since Carrie just needs to show up and be smart as she pieces together the mystery.

The cover of Whiteout: Compendium

The follow-up story, “Melt,” gives much more insight into Carrie and the story is stronger overall. Both Rucka and Lieber enjoy treating Antarctica as its own entity — it’s almost an additional character — and it’s less of a mystery and more of just a series of action sequences. It’s fun while still having a thoughtful core.

Whiteout is not my favorite comic, but I do appreciate reading comics that are about normal, adult women (well, as much as a U.S. Marshal assigned to Antarctica is “normal”). I don’t want to be Carrie nor do I necessarily identify with her, but I enjoyed her stories.

Making a Whiteout movie seems like it would’ve been easy. You have an actress who is skilled at both drama and action. You have an unusual environment to set a murder mystery in. You have two volumes of well-plotted source material to work from. How bad could it be?

In the case of Whiteout (2009, directed by Dominic Sena) — very bad. I had low expectations but this didn’t rise to those.

The movie takes the basic structure of both the comic series, smooshes them together, and then excises the exact things that are good in the comic. Comics clearly have a lot of dialogue and while I’m not a fan of movies that just extract the words from the word balloons, it’s at least a starting point. These screenwriters seemed to take the dialogue from the Whiteout comics and make them as simplistic as possible. There is even a part where Carrie says something to the effect of “Can you say that in English?” which is never a good sign. This is a movie written for people who have never seen a movie or a TV show before. Or read a book or a comic. Or been exposed to any form of media. The amount of over-explaining and the repeated flashbacks basically says Whiteout does not trust its audience to be smart at all.

Kate Beckinsale, who quite often plays women who are capable and confident, both mentally and physically, comes across strangely meek here. I get Carrie is meant to be haunted by her past actions, but the movie tends to decide that “haunted” means “confused and unsure of herself.” I think Beckinsale does what she can with what she’s given, but the movie’s choices to weaken Carrie don’t do her any favors.

Some of the plot changes are nonsensical. One of the best parts of the first Whiteout story is Carrie’s antagonist attraction to British agent Lilly. The movie instead pairs her with Robert Pryce (Gabriel Macht) and the relationship is far less interesting. Instead of Carrie’s traumatic story involving her beating a criminal who attacked her to death, it was that she had to kill the partner that betrayed her. That would be trivial on the surface, but Carrie says something about how that incident meant she no longer knew who to trust. A smarter movie would use this as foreshadowing, leading Carrie to figure out that Doc was in on the murders/smuggling operation, but this movie is not smart.

I think there are exactly two other women in this movie. That Antarctica is a place full of men definitely plays a part in the comic, but the filmmakers definitely decide that since they had a woman as a main character, all other women were irrelevant. Plus, the movie more or less introduces Carrie by having her strip out of all her layers of clothes to take a shower. There’s no nudity, but it’s gratuitous nonetheless.

There are some halfway decent action sequences but there are also some of the worst computer-generated effects I’ve seen in a movie, even grading on 2009 standards. I also questioned how often people went outside with parts of their faces exposed. I don’t expect complete realism from a murder mystery that takes place in Antarctica but I couldn’t even find myself believing anything that was happening here.

I would love to see a Whiteout limited TV series. I think the source material is strong enough that this could be done right. Or at least not as wrong as this movie is.