White Noise, featuring Michael Keaton in the first lead role in several years, is the kind of cynical, derivative Hollywood product that, two weeks after its theatrical release, will be quickly forgotten by contemporary audiences. The end product is a shallow, underwritten supernatural horror film that attempts, without success, to capitalize on the recent spate of Asian horror films (and their American remakes). White Noise's sporadic, badly timed scares and all-too-predictable reliance on CGI at key points are only two of White Noise's many shortcomings.
White Noise opens in an idyllic, upper-middle class suburb in the United States (actually Vancouver, British Columbia), as Jonathan Rivers (Michael Keaton), a successful, accomplished architect (one of the most overused professions in film), and his second, younger, wife, Anna (Chandra West), a commercial fiction writer about to launch her latest novel, “The Eternal Wait” (an all-too-obvious hint for the audience for the first significant plot turn in White Noise), enjoy a casual morning together. Jonathan's son from a previous marriage, Mikey (Nicholas Elia), splits his time between John and John's ex-wife, Jane (Sarah Strange). Then the unthinkable happens: Anna disappears. Her car is eventually found, abandoned near a pier (and frenzied media attention, due to Anna’s literary fame), but no sign of Anna.
Left in limbo between his worst fears and rapidly vanishing hopes, John encounters Raymond Price (British actor Ian McNiece). Price cruelly (and abruptly) informs John that Anna is dead, and contacting him. Price has turned his own personal grief into an obsession with contacting the dead through what's called “Electronic Voice Phenomena” (EVP), a supposed “real-life” phenomenon (if you can believe the press materials and the website). With EVP, electronic equipment, i.e., television sets, radios, tape recorders and yes, cell phones, can act as conduits between the living and the dead. Price, of course, helpfully serves to introduce John (and the audience) to EVP via lengthy expository scenes.
After a series of eerie phone calls (including one from Anna’s cell phone) and answering machine messages, John’s skepticism and incredulity quickly (and effortlessly) turns to passionate, and eventually obsessive, belief in EVP. His narrative function completed, Price exits the film, but not before sharing a one final, vital piece of information: the EVP equipment can also capture the sounds and images of malevolent spirits. John purchases his own audio and visual equipment, dedicating an entire room in his new apartment to the glowing monitors that spit out static images and sound. The audience is then treated to a soporific montage of John pensively sitting in front of the monitors, viewing videotape and listening to audiotape for any sign of Anna.
As John continues his obsessive search for Anna, his life unravels. John ignores his young, pre-adolescent son, sending him for extended weekends with his ex-wife, a convenient excuse for both John and the screenwriter (since John's son is virtually superfluous). The screenwriter, Niall Johnson, simply had no reason for keeping John's son in the film. Even the ex-wife seems redundant (at least through the second-to-last scene), serving no identifiable narrative purpose. Similarly, the erratic, intermittment appearance of Sarah Tate (Deborah Kara Unger), another believer in EVP, exists solely to spoon feed the main character and through him, the audience, expository information, most of which John could have obtained on his own.
John simply stops going to work, with apparently no financial or social repercussions. Once John verifies that Anna’s spirit is, in fact, contacting him, the film takes the first of several misconceived plot turns, making Anna into a spirit guide, warning John of future events. John then undergoes an unconvincing conversion into a Good Samaritan/action hero. Surprisingly, with Johnson and Sax dropping obvious hints about unseen, malevolent spirits and their apparent ability to impact natural events, White Noise veers instead into cliched, serial killer/slasher territory, an extremely disappointing, unimaginative direction for the film to take. The incidental, barely seen villain, revealed via flashback, is unfortunately symptomatic of the slipshod writing and directing on view in White Noise.
With so many risible moments marking time between modest scares, audiences will be left pondering Michael Keaton's precipitous fall from A-list star to character actor (with the occasional lead role, as in White Noise). Keaton, however, has little to do except stare at static-filled screens, furrow his brow, or turn his head in the direction of an audio recording. White Noise does have two or three effective scares. Most of the other scares come from electronic equipment turning on and off unexpectedly, a plot device that quickly loses its effectiveness with each iteration. Last, Sax and Johnson short change the audience by undersuing the evil spirits, failing to make them integral to the plot or in using them for shocks or scares. White Noise might aspire to emulate recent Asian supernatural horror films (e.g., Ringu, Ju-on: The Grudge, Dark Water, The Eye, A Tale of Two Sisters), but it’s more likely to remind audiences of last year’s The Forgotten, a derivative science-fiction/horror genre entry almost, but not quite, saved by Julianne Moore's performance as the central character and the occasionally arresting shot or scene.
© Mel Valentin, 9th January, 2005
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