By Andrew A. Smith
Scripps Howard News Service
Sept. 8, 2009 -- Mother Nature is the scariest killer of them all. That’s what I took away from Whiteout
, the 1998 miniseries from Oni Press that was collected as a graphic novel in 2001, and is now a movie, premiering Sept. 11.
It’s not that Mama Nature kills any more savagely or brutally or frequently than human beings. We’re actually pretty good at that.
What’s scary about Mother Nature is that she doesn’t care. Like us, she kills savagely and brutally and frequently – but unlike us, it’s with complete indifference. She doesn’t care how smart or pretty or rich or important or clever or busy you are. And she doesn’t negotiate. You get in her way, she’ll roll right over you.
Which is what makes Whiteout
such a unique murder mystery. It takes place in Antarctica, which author Greg Rucka reminds us many times is a place where human beings – even insects and bacteria – can’t survive without constant support.
On “the Ice,” temperatures have been known to drop to those of equatorial Mars. Flesh freezes and snaps off in seconds, air turns to ice in your lungs, cells explode from within. During a “whiteout” condition, when 300 mph Katabic winds off the polar plateau whip up thousand-year-old snow, there’s zero visibility, and you can die inches from the warmth and safety of a building you couldn’t see. (What you do see is hallucinations, from hypothermia.) During “winter” the sun never rises for most of six months; from mid-February to mid-October nothing made by man can get in or out. And it’s the highest continent in the world, so toss in altitude sickness.
Like in space, the climate is antagonistic. A second’s carelessness, and you’re dead. Losing a glove or guideline during whiteout is a death sentence.
And in this frozen hell, not long before winter’s cold curtain comes crashing down, U.S. Marshal Carrie Stetko is assigned the investigation of the first murder in Antarctica history. Her suspects are a mixed bag of scientists and support personnel from various countries scattered across various bases, all desperate to get out while they can. Complicating matters is that Stetko is in disgrace due to anger-management issues – and is a woman, where during the long winter the male-female ratio is 400 to 1.
Then the bodies start to pile up. What in (the bottom of) the world is happening here?
Rucka’s taut pacing and earthy dialogue keep you frozen in your seat until the end. Steve Lieber’s pencils are top-notch; arty enough to be attractive, but clear enough to tell a clean story. I can and have recommended Whiteout
for years as a chocks-out adventure story staged, like Outland
, in an environment so merciless that it is unforgettable. (Full disclosure: I got Lieber’s autograph on my copy of Whiteout
at the 2002 San Diego Comic-Con, and I think he is a very nice guy.)
That is, of course, the graphic novel. Whether the movie will live up to that promise is unknown as of this writing. The fact that Whiteout
has been in development off and on for seven years, and once had the often comedic Reese Witherspoon attached, is not encouraging.
However, the film stars Kate Beckinsale, who has plenty of dramatic experience and is a cult favorite among genre fans for Van Helsing
and the “Underworld” series. We also know that a major character, Lily Sharpe of England’s MI-6, with whom Stetko had a wary and reluctant alliance, has been replaced by Gabriel (The Spirit
) Macht as U.N. operative Robert Pryce.
That latter part is interesting for several reasons. One, Rucka has been quoted as saying that he approves of the switch, to increase Stetko’s vulnerability as the only female on the Ice. Two, Sharpe was later spun off into her own series, Queen and Country,
and her absence here means those rights are still available for movies or a TV series I’d pay good money to see. Three, it was a little too convenient to have the only two women (both attractive) appear in almost every panel. That flirts with pandering, and I’m glad it’s gone.
But the movie will retain Mother Nature’s wrath, which is the part that gives me a chill. I don’t mean to imply she’s a “virtual character” of any kind, which has become a movie-review cliché. She is simply the environment, one that is omnipresent and deadly.
And that is freaking scary.
Contact Andrew A. Smith of the Memphis Commercial Appeal at email@example.com.