'Whiteout': Polar Disorder, By Kurt Loder

Kate Beckinsale on ice.

It's probably not director Dominic Sena's fault that his new snowbound thriller, "Whiteout," suggests so many tantalizing genre directions in which the movie itself, unfortunately, doesn't go. The picture's general thrill deficit, however -- well, that would seem to be Sena's purview.

Early on there's a scene in which U.S. Marshall Carrie Stetko ([movieperson id="2612"]Kate Beckinsale[/movieperson]) enters her quarters at the Antarctic research station where she's the lone law-enforcer and strips to her underwear, allowing the camera to ogle her behind as she bends over. Then she steps into a shower, affording us one of those shot-through-frosted-glass views of Beckinsale's (or somebody's) vaguely nude body luxuriating in the steamy spray. Naturally, we think: Okay, this is gonna be a movie with some R-rated skin. But no. The Antarctic, being a place where temperatures can plunge to 100 degrees below zero, is the land of heavily layered clothing, of the sort in which Beckinsale spends much of the rest of the film.

Then there's the research station itself -- a huddled outpost remotely situated amid endless fields of ice -- which gives off some of the apprehensive chill of "The Thing." And its cramped interiors echo the claustrophobic unease of "Alien" -- especially when Tom Skerritt turns up as Dr. Fury, the base medico, and then again when a sinister dark figure starts viciously winnowing the rest of the cast.

Both of those movies are a lot more fun than this one, though, and considerably more thrilling. The picture is based rather loosely on a comic-book series written by Greg Rucka, who's also an executive producer here (although heavily outranked by action kingpin Joel Silver), so we can assume that he signed off on some of the odder plot elements added for the film. The opening is set high in the skies of 1957, with a crew of vodka-swilling Russians demonstrating the unwisdom of firing off guns inside a cruising aircraft. (Is there anyone below the age of 10 who doesn't know this?) Then there's a character named Pryce (bland Gabriel Macht), a "UN investigator" who shows up to provide guidance for Carrie's inquiry into the case of a corpse that's been discovered way out on the tundra. In the comics, this Pryce character is a woman, a British spy named Lily. She's clearly been transgendered here to provide some romantic heat, but it never kindles -- Carrie and Pryce don't even kiss, so what was the point? (An insipid demographic calculation to avoid having too many female main characters would be my guess.)

The picture's wan thrills are supposed to derive from Carrie's mounting paranoia: The dead guy out on the ice was a geophysicist stationed at a faraway sub-station which, upon being visited, is found to be populated by many fellow dead guys. How did the original corpse wind up in the middle of nowhere, with no geothermal gear on and with no frozen footprints anywhere nearby to indicate the presence of his killer? When the killer turns up at Carrie's research station, making the rounds with a pickaxe, the question becomes: Which one of her trusted associates is he? And with an enormous winter storm blowing in, what sort of homicidal shenanigans will he get up to next?

Unfortunately, Beckinsale isn't especially effective at conveying paranoia here, so the hoped-for tension remains muted amid the narrative clutter (flashbacks to Carrie's previous posting, in Miami, which ended badly) and the throng of male characters, who look much alike when bundled up in parkas and goggles. The movie's conclusion attempts to strike an elegiac note, but it's too soggily sentimental to rise to the assignment. By the time Carrie finally starts contemplating a transfer out of this frozen hellhole, we've long been ready to book.

Don't miss Kurt Loder's reviews of [article id="1621230"]"Beyond a Reasonable Doubt,"[/article] [article id="1621826"]"The Informant!,"[/article] [article id="1621700"]"Jennifer's Body"[/article] and [article id="1621846"]"The Burning Plain,"[/article] also in theaters this week.

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