White Noise (Canada/United Kingdom/United States, 2005)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

For our cinematic introduction to the year 2005, I can offer an alternative two-word title to the one selected by Universal Pictures: Utter Crap. (There are more colorful possibilities, but I like to think of this website as family-friendly.) At least that moniker sets reasonable expectations for White Noise, which sounds more like the name of Vanilla Ice's successor than moviedom's latest answer to the mystery of death.

The biggest horror about White Noise is that there's no horror to speak of. In the place of scares, we are bombarded with bad melodrama, silly pseudo-science, a storyline that never comes close to making sense, and a creeping malaise of boredom that will put even the most over-caffeinated move-goer to sleep. I could also complain about the ending, but the movie doesn't really have one. It sort of stumbles to a stop before the credits mercifully begin running. The moment this happened, half the people remaining in the audience bolted for the exit. The other half had to be awakened from a long winter's nap.

Electronic Voice Phenomenon (or EVP) is, we are told, a paranormal occurrence by which the dead communicate with the living through recorded static. (It can't be live static - it has to be recorded, or, in other words, subject to manipulation.) Like astrology, however, EVP is in direct opposition to anything accepted by mainstream science, and has no basis in the real world study of electromagnetism. Like the supremely absurd pseudo-science of astrology, it is accepted on faith by those who have little solid scientific background. Quick, turn to Channel 15 - maybe we'll see Grandma!

A bigger mystery than what the ghosts in this movie are trying to communicate is why Michael Keaton agreed to star as architect Jonathan Rivers. This is one of those "huh?" performances where you know the paycheck was huge or someone has pictures. Chandra West plays Anna Rivers, Jonathan's wife and the requisite Dead Woman Walking. After a couple of cute scenes between husband and wife, she heads out to work and never comes home. The next time Jonathan sees her, it's in the static of his new big-screen TV. At first, Jonathan doesn't accept EVP, but a pair of True Believers, Raymond Price (Ian McNeice) and Sarah Tate (Deborah Kara Unger), convince him otherwise. It isn't long before he is spending every free hour watching white noise on TV or listening to static on the radio. (Odd that he's trying to get what everyone else wants to avoid.) He starts seeing and hearing dead people, or people who aren't quite dead yet. (What else would you expect after staring at a randomly pixilated screen for hours without interruption?)

Somewhere, buried under all of the noise, lies the potential for an effective drama about an obsessed man who can't get beyond the death of his wife. Or a horror film about the demons that can sneak into this world through the cracks we open into another one. Yet White Noise bizarrely straddles the two possibilities, offering little in the way of satisfaction to fans of either genre. Horror aficionados will be bored out of their minds. In fact, aside from a throw-away "boo!" moment here and there, there's nothing remotely creepy until the final ten minutes. Lovers of drama will find themselves chortling at the soap opera badness of the film's "serious" moments.

Filmmaker Geoffrey Sax (a British TV director making his feature debut) and lone credited screenwriter Niall Johnson construct White Noise as a mystery that even they don't understand. As a result, the movie rarely makes sense. The premise of Jonathan attempting to contact his wife is put aside as he becomes a crusader trying to prevent bad things from happening. Somehow, he starts seeing endangered living people in the static, which leads to a conflict with bad ghosts in an astoundingly inept climax.

There's an admitted irony in noting that the first "official" movie of 2005 could end up being the worst of the year. One could consider this a cause for optimism, since it's hard to believe things won't get better. White Noise is obviously aiming to seduce the throngs of teenage movie-goers who made big hits out of The Ring and The Grudge, but as inane as those films are, at least they possess style and atmosphere. White Noise has nothing. You'll have a better time staying home, tuning your TV to a station that doesn't carry a local signal, and staring. Maybe you'll even start to see something - like the evening news from a distant city.

White Noise (Canada/United Kingdom/United States, 2005)

Director: Geoffrey Sax
Cast: Michael Keaton, Chandra West, Deborah Kara Unger, Ian McNeice
Screenplay: Niall Johnson
Cinematography: Chris Seager
Music: Claude Foisy
U.S. Distributor: Universal Pictures
Run Time: 1:38
U.S. Release Date: 2005-01-07
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1