Whiteout is a movie that seems caught in a trap of its own devising. The premise behind the movie is fairly straightforward—take an old-school mystery and set it in an exotic place. But old-school mystery is not what the current audience wants to see, and the movie's own advertising does little to help it (although I guess that depends on how one defines "help"). The trailers and commercials for the movie made it appear that something terrifying lie under the Antarctic ice, invoking memories of movies like The Thing and 30 Days of Night, and so audiences perhaps went expecting a horror movie or perhaps an action movie at the least. Instead, what is hidden under decade' worth of ice is a Russian airplane and its frozen crew. Whiteout has very few action sequences, and the few it does have depend on the exotic nature of living in a world whose inhabitants don't go outside for six months at a time. The result is a movie that, by one set of standards is entertaining and a little thoughtful and by another is boring and stodgy. If the goal of the advertisements was to bring people in to buy tickets, it succeeded perhaps for one weekend only, because word of mouth is going to kill this movie, as many viewers walk away from the movie disappointed in it not delivering what it seemed to promise.
Carrie Stetko (Kate Beckinsale) is a US Marshall who is at the end of a two-year stint at the South Pole. She's looking forward to returning to the United States after spending time in self-designed rehabilitation after an arrest goes bad in her previous position in Miami. Most of her time is spent dealing with misdemeanors, like drunkenness and petty theft. But as the camp is preparing for the changeover from summer to winter, and those folks who are going home are packing up, a body is discovered miles on the ice miles from any camp. Stetko is suddenly involved in two races against time—first, she needs to solve the mystery before the transfer of personnel and she must solve it before a massive storm moves across the camp, resulting in a storm called a whiteout, where vision the hundred-mile-per-hour winds reduce vision to no more than six inches. The approaching storm not only imperils her ability to leave but also could wipe out any evidence there might be.
There are few people she interacts with regularly, including Dr. Fury (Tom Skerritt), her friend and confessor, and Delfy (Columbus Short), her favorite pilot. When Stetko and Delfy go to the home base for the person whose body they have found, they meet up with Robert Pryce (Gabriel Macht), a UN investigator who was working on what appeared to be a separate case and which now seem to have crossed into her own.
The movie follows the investigation of the murder and the conspiracy it reveals, as Stetko and team roam across Antarctica in search of answers. The audience really has very little chance to solve the mystery on their own based on the clues; like current TV shows like CSI and Numbers, too much expertise is required to figure out what evidence means. Again, though, the point is to create an old-fashioned procedural in an exotic location. And the beautiful and haunting vistas of Antarctica are about as exotic as one can get, almost giving the continent the feel of another character in the story. While not quite achieving character level, the setting does become another obstacle that the investigation has to fight through. The action sequences, sort of modified chase scenes, are when the setting must importantly come into play. Not only does Stetko find herself running from a killer with an ice axe, she has to do so across the deathly cold of the Antarctic, thereby heightening the tension of the chases without gimmick or additional players.
The difficulty comes from the movie not stretching to include all the spiffery that is associated with detective movies nowadays. We get corpses galore, but we don't get terrific explosions and deadly gunplay across city streets. When there are chase scenes, it involves the assailant and victim "running" across ice fields as they hold onto guide ropes. It's a whole different kind of tension than modern moviegoers might be used to, where the threat is none the less deadly for its quiet. As a result, the movie feels contemplative, though there are no real twists to the plot until the very end, when the macguffin is exposed. So Whiteout ends up being a competently directed and filmed story with interesting characters interacting without explosion and dissent. This is not to say there is no distrust among them all, but they don't spend time fighting one another. And like a child who grows up eating candy and is suddenly given a potato, modern viewers feel that this type of movie is just boring. But I also bet they would have trouble sitting through the twists and turns and point-to-point investigating that makes up The Maltese Falcon as well.
So I liked Whiteout; it's a solid well-made movie that tells a fairly interesting story. It's probably too mundane for a lot of audiences, even though its setting is just spectacular. I really do recommend seeing it, especially in digital if you can; it's a shame for such beautiful footage to go to waste. But if you don't care for an old-fashioned story told well with no explosions, no burning buildings, no shootouts involving massive amounts of automatic weapons, this just is not the movie for you.