Cinema Psycho

"You know what? You have a losing personality." – Manhattan

White Noise (DVD)

Posted by CinemaPsycho on June 3, 2005

Directed by Geoffrey Sax/written by Niall Johnson/starring Michael Keaton, Deborah Kara Unger, Chandra West, Ian McNeice/Universal Home Video

A widower attempts to make contact with his dead wife through something called Electronic Voice Phenomenon.

I missed this one during its recent theatrical release in early January – that’s Oscar catch-up time, after all, and I’m pretty suspicious of anything the studios dump in the dead of winter. Surprisingly, this movie actually did decent business, and after catching up with it on DVD…I really don’t understand why. Maybe people were desperate for some quick escapism after the onslaught of “important” films. Maybe they were tricked by that admittedly cool trailer (which isn’t included on the DVD for some odd reason) that explained the concept of EVP while showing very little of the actual movie.

Whatever it was that lured audiences to this, I’m willing to bet that the majority of those poor suckers were disappointed at best. Unless they really enjoy pronounced mediocrity, that is. White Noise is both completely ridiculous and as dull to sit through as 98 minutes of TV static. (You thought I was going to say “as dull as 98 minutes of white noise”? Come on, I’m not that obvious, am I?)

The progressively idiotic story involves Jonathan Rivers (Keaton), an architect living one of those “perfect lives” that are only bestowed upon people in movies like this. His hot wife (West), who’s gotta be at least 15 years younger than him, is apparently a somewhat famous author of the kind of books that you always see on the bestseller lists but few people actually read. They’ve got a huge house, a couple of generically perfect kids (who mysteriously disappear during the course of the movie – or maybe I just slept through the explanation) and things are just all around peachy keen.

Of course, in the movies perfect lives must be torn apart (I guess no one wants to see a movie about someone living a great life that gets even better), and so something awful must happen. Jonathan’s hot author wife disappears and after a brief search, they seem to give up looking for her. Further evidence that this movie isn’t set in the real world – whenever a reasonably attractive young woman disappears, we all know that the cable news channels consider it a national emergency, right? Plus being a bestselling author, you’d think there would be more of an effort to find her. In fact, that might have made for a more interesting movie.

So then Jonathan meets this person (McNeice) who tells him that his dead wife has been trying to contact him through EVP. How the guy knew she was Jonathan’s wife, I’m not sure – maybe he read her books or saw her story on MSNBC or something. Of course Jonathan doesn’t believe him at first, but eventually he just misses his hot author wife so much that he decides to give it a shot. Things get weirder, and dumber, from there, as Jonathan becomes obsessed with EVP and uses it to uncover a serial killer and badly rendered CGI ghosts.

I’ll be honest – I had serious trouble staying awake through this thing. I fell asleep several times and when I went back to watch what I had missed, it seemed like nothing in particular had happened in those scenes. The somber tone of the material borders on funereal, and about half the movie is spent with Jonathan brooding over his missing hot author wife. Yet there’s very little genuine emotion being expressed – it may be meant to be internal anguish, but it barely seems to register on Keaton, a good actor who is simply out of his element here. Stripped of his trademark smart-aleck charm and manic energy, and given nothing in the character to replace them with, Keaton just isn’t very interesting to watch in this. Jonathan comes off more like a guy who’s mildly irritated by misplacing his keys than a man grieving over the loss of his beloved wife.

Meanwhile, the plot is just bizarrely ludicrous. It’s explained that EVP is basically the spirits of the dead communicating through the background noise on audio recordings. As if that wasn’t silly enough, somehow Jonathan and his EVP buddies can also see images of the dead on video recordings as well. Apparently they thought that just playing back audio recordings wasn’t cinematic enough, but the images don’t really add much to the movie (other than providing some obvious clues) and they just make the whole thing seem less creepy somehow. The whole point was that we were hearing voices from “the other side” – aural representations of disembodied spirits that are somehow breaking through the barriers of conventional reality. Seeing them dilutes the impact of that concept.

The painfully slow and drawn-out proceedings lead to a comically overedited finale that seems designed either to finally wake the audience up or the hide the shoddy CGI work done on the ghosts. It’s as if someone let Michael Bay run wild in the editing room. Not only does it seem to come from a completely different movie, it seems to come from a completely different, equally awful movie.

Worst of all is that White Noise was shot in Vancouver, and unfortunately looks it. Not that I have anything against the Canadian film industry, but Hollywood tends to shoot movies there for one reason only – to save money. This is why most Hollywood movies shot there look cheap and bland, and this one looks the cheapest and the blandest. If I had found out after watching it that all of the sets were made of cardboard and Styrofoam and all of the locations were on some low-rent studio backlot, it wouldn’t have shocked me. Seriously, this movie looks like shit, and even the wonders of DVD don’t do much to enhance the viewing experience. It’s not much of a surprise to discover that director Sax has a legion of TV-movie credits to his name, because that’s exactly the way this plays. The real disappointment is that most TV-movies actually look better than this feature film does, and are probably more interesting to watch.

If there’s any reason at all to rent White Noise (and I’m not convinced that there is), it would be to see the hilariously overblown extras involving the supposedly true phenomenon of EVP. Hosted by former CNN Showbiz Today reporter Jim Moret (if that gives you any idea of their credibility), these featurettes are curiously fascinating in a cheesy, hokey faux-documentary fashion. If I didn’t know any better, I’d swear this was all an elaborate put-on staged by the producers, like the Curse of the Blair Witch TV special. Or pretty much any bad reality show. It all plays like an inside joke that everybody’s in on, but no one bothers to laugh.

However, there’s every indication that EVP is for real – or at least these particular people think it is. I believe that they believe it. Which, of course, doesn’t make it true. There’s no real scientific explanation given for exactly how this phenomenon could possibly happen – as in the movie, we’re just supposed to take it on faith that it does. The fact that every occurrence we hear is a vaguely deciphered, barely discernable one-or-two-word “message” ought to immediately give one pause – we never hear full sentences or even declarative statements like in that misleading trailer. Even more bizarre is the short “Recording the Afterlife at Home” in which we are encouraged to use a simple tape recorder to capture the magic of EVP for ourselves. Gee, so what’s the point of calling on those “experts” with their expensive equipment then? Whether or not there’s any truth to EVP at all, it’s clear that some people are just desperate enough to believe in something that they can interpret virtually anything as a “sign”. The fact that Universal is using these poor souls to sell DVDs is pretty sad.

What’s even sadder is how many people are apparently taking the bait. Instead of actually suffering through White Noise, consider popping in a blank audio tape, closing your eyes and listening to whatever background noise is generated from it. That would be about as much fun as actually seeing the movie. And you might even get in a good nap or two.

* 6/3/05

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