The new movie “Whiteout” refers not to Liquid Paper correction fluid but to the brutal, wintry conditions that tend to make Antarctica inhabitable.

That won’t stop a determined U.S. marshal (Kate Beckinsale) from pursuing her business, not to mention a killer, lurking around the South Pole. Would you believe a frozen body is found just three days before winter sets in (how can anyone there tell)?

Token characters populate the “scientific research” facility: A grandfatherly doctor (Tom Skerritt), a helpful pilot (Christopher Short), an obnoxious drunk from Down Under, et al. Onto this frozen tundra arrives a strapping United Nations operative (Gabriel Macht), who may or may not be a good guy.

Among the obstacles blocking our heroine’s icy path is a Soviet cargo plane, a half-century old with no shortage of corpses — and bottles of vodka (as if that’s the only way to identify Soviets). When the expedition stalls, along with the crew’s vehicle, suffice it to say that alcohol will come in handy.

 

In the midst of all the white stuff — intermittently mixed with blood — stands British temptress Beckinsale. There might be a lovelier creature on the silver screen, but there can’t be more than one. Formerly a diamond in the independent rough — “Cold Comfort Farm,” and spot-on “The Last Days of Disco” — Beckinsale has bounced from popular commercial fair, such as “Pearl Harbor” and “Underworld,” to major misfires (she was the only reason to bother with “Click” and “Serendipity”).

By and large, most notably in poignant “Laurel Canyon,” Beckinsale has proved she is more than a pretty face, handling an American accent with the greatest of ease. This time, the beauty is one of a handful of reasons to bother sitting through “Whiteout.”

Not unlike Jennifer Aniston and Chloe Sevigny, a pair of actresses of similar age and ilk, Beckinsale still appears disaffected and unspoiled by the spotlight. Take the simplest and briefest moments, such as when a colleague asks if she’s prepared to spend the winter in Antarctica: Beckinsale replies, “No … I don’t know” in an authentic way that makes us believe it’s the character, not the actress. And as she’s roused from a nightmare, it appears she actually had been sleeping and was legitimately disturbed.

 

Macht and Short (from last year’s impressive “Cadillac Records”) hold their own but can’t equal the graceful veteran Skerritt, who looks like Kris Kristofferson more with each passing year. Skerritt may be accused of slumming here; if so, it’s a comforting sight, and he saves the finest moment for last.

Director Dominic Sena, whose professional background appears steeped in music as much as movies, has a directorial track record all over the map: from “Kalifornia” more than 15 years ago, to “Gone in 60 Seconds” and the wretched “Swordfish.” It’s obvious Sena gravitates toward intensity and action, the thrill of the chase. Too bad “Whiteout” required a quartet of producers — typically a bad sign — and a manipulative score that would make Philip Glass proud.

As expected, CGI effects aren’t in short supply, but credit Chris Soos for his spectacular cinematography of this perpetually frosty landmass. Strands of the narrative weigh on the pedantic, clichéd side. A British researcher hangs a giant Union Jack in his office, explorers seem to be modeling The North Face apparel — that sort of nonsense.

 

During a climactic fight, staged conveniently during blinding conditions, the characters are indistinguishable. Action becomes so erratic, the sequence soon resembles a “Batman” episode featuring Mr. Freeze, with the brawlers wearing parkas instead of leotards.

Among its few accomplishments, “Whiteout” keeps alive the two-year string of full-frontal male nudity, ostensible overcompensation for years of females disrobing on screen. (“Forgetting Sarah Marshall” had its merits, but initiating this trend of naked men isn’t among them.)

Given the characters’ familiarity with wintry wonderlands, and the overriding murder-mystery element, it must be asked: Is “Whiteout” a variation of “Smilla’s Sense of Snow,” a remarkable book whose prose didn’t translate to the big screen? Both stories maintain a brisk, relentless pace thanks to their cool and intelligent heroines.

It’s possible filmmaker Sena did his best in converting a decade-old comic book, but he relies too heavily on his stars to make amends. If not for Beckinsale’s earnest effort, audiences would be left out in the cold.

 

jluksic@syvjournal.com