Greetings, Maniacs, and welcome to another week of the No-Fly Zone! This is Mania.com’s alternative comics column, where we take cheap shots at superheroes and black and white is still hip. This week, we’re actually stepping out of the comic shop and heading to the movies. Dominic Sena’s Whiteout hit theaters last Friday, and it’s based on an Oni Press graphic novel by Greg Rucka and Steve Lieber.
Now, both versions of Whiteout present the story of U.S. Marshal Carrie Stetko (Kate Beckinsdale in the film), who works at an isolated research station in Antarctica. In both the graphic novel and the film, she discovers the murdered body of a scientist on the ice. With the winter and six months of darkness ahead, she must solve the case before the base shuts down. In the comic, Stetko has assumed the post as punishment after killing an unruly suspect. In the film, she volunteers for it after killing her traitorous partner in the line of duty. Thus, the film changes Stetko’s motivation from one of duty and begrudging acceptance to repentance. While it doesn’t change the fundamental tone of the story, it undermines the graphic novel’s version of Stetko without good reason.
Fortunately, most of the other changes are subtle or don’t alter the spirit of the original work. In the graphic novel, Sharpe—a female British agent—helps Stetko solve the murder. In the film, it’s a male UN inspector named Price (Gabriel Mact). The comic’s first murder leads to several others, while the film keeps it to one. The substance of the MacGuffin is changed a bit, but not to any real effect. It’s strange, because the very reason the comic succeeded seems to be the film’s downfall. Greg Rucka and Steve Lieber put out Whiteout through Oni Press in 1998, in an era when independent comics were really starting to shine after the 1990s bust all but decimated the industry. It’s a tight little murder mystery devoid of sci-fi, fantasy, or horror genre tropes. And, while it’s very good, it’s essentially the comic equivalent of the page-turners you’ll find in the airport bookshop. That’s not meant as an insult. It hits all the right beats of a solid murder mystery, but one that sets itself apart with its Antarctic setting. Sure, there’s a slasher of sorts—our murderer appears a couple of times clad head-to-toe in cold weather gear, armed with an ice axe. But, he’s not back from the dead, and he’s motivated entirely by the aforementioned MacGuffin. Giving away the particulars would ruin both the comic and the film. But, it’s not anything earthshaking like Einstein’s lost formula for time travel, the blood of Christ, or a secret that would shake the foundations upon which our very republic is built. Those more over-the-top revelations have long been a staple of American comics. Good Christ, the Marvel Universe has the Ultimate Nullifier and the Cosmic Cube. But at the time of its release, the tone and revelations of Whiteout were very down-to-earth and like the ones you’d find in movies aimed at adults—back when Hollywood made them—or at least didn’t shoehorn them into limited release runs. In that regard, it was incredibly novel. And, it remains a solid and recommended read.
But, in the same way that making Resident Evil into a movie seemed kind of redundant—a film based on a game inspired by several films—adapting Whiteout for the cinema proves kind of fruitless. You see, a long time ago in the ‘80s and ‘90s, Hollywood made mainstream films aimed at people older than 24. They had titles like Wall Street, Sleeping with the Enemy, or Absence of Malice. They were movies without aliens, monsters, or slashers. They dealt with mature themes and situations, when that word didn’t just mean extra boobs. They showed people in suits doing suit-y, grownup things in courtrooms and offices. And, they bored the hell out of you, because you were nine and busy watching Raiders of the Lost Ark for the fifteenth time. Now, geeky genre movies come out every week—science fiction (or what passes for it!), action (rated PG-13!), horror (for teens!), comedy (for stupid people!), and CGI cartoons (with fart jokes!). Hollywood figured out that kids go to the movies to socialize because they can’t get into bars. Now, every movie is aimed at twenty-somethings, teens, and younger, because they make money. And, Whiteout really belongs to that era, only because it adapts a graphic novel inspired by actual adult storytelling, in a time when that was less common in comics. Now, the reverse is true. Mature, genre-defying storytelling crops up in comics all the time. Anyone who reads Manga knows you can write comics about anything. But, movies have largely fled to the genre ghetto where comics once dwelled—and taking superheroes with them.
In that regard, Whiteout the film seems out of place. It’s almost like trying to find sweetness in a carrot after you’ve spent a lifetime eating Twinkies. In this reviewer’s opinion, that probably accounts for most of the negative press the film has received—7% at Rotten Tomatoes, just one notch above Larry the Cable Guy: Health Inspector. It seems like a truly half-assed compliment, but Whiteout is not a bad film. It’s a solid, if unspectacular, thriller. It doesn’t deserve the critical drubbing it’s taken. It’s relatively faithful to the comic, though some of the details get murky. Rucka’s graphic novel took you through all the steps leading to the murders. Sena’s film just glosses over the details and says “We got greedy.” But, Whiteout continues a promising Hollywood trend of adapting non-superhero comics. This may not be the film that sets of a decades-long trend, but it’s one in a series of many. Let’s hope, at the very least, it drives new readers to the comic.
In the end, though, it’s a decent film based on a good comic, but one that mostly set itself apart because of the time that it came out. The film has taken a drubbing that it doesn’t deserve, but it’s still just a solid murder mystery devoid of the sort of horror, fantasy, or sci-fi elements one might expect. While it’s difficult to wholeheartedly recommend the film, there’s certainly nothing wrong with liking it.
Kurt Amacker is the writer of The No-Fly Zone, Mania’s weekly alternative comics column. He is also the author of the comic miniseries Dead Souls, published by Seraphemera Books. Dead Souls is available from the Seraphemera Books website, Amazon.com, and at comic shops everywhere. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.