The biggest question I have about this particular type of supernatural thriller is one that movies of this ilk never address: Why do these hauntings only happen to the more upscale among us?
Do the spirits of those who have gone beyond the veil think that folks living in Architectural Digest photo-spread houses are the only ones who can afford to put their lives on hold for months on end while they futz around with paranormal hoo-ha? Is there some kind of hidden message here? Are we supposed to see how lucky we are that supernatural manifestations are likely to pass us by for ritzier neighborhoods? At any rate, I sense some kind of upper-class conspiracy at work.
In this case we have a hero, Jonathan Rivers (Michael Keaton), who becomes obsessed with listening to the spirit of his late wife, Anna (Chandra West, The Salton Sea), as she natters away in recordings of “white noise” taken from untuned TV sets. Supposedly, in this manner the dead — who evidently never heard of AT&T or Western Union — are trying to contact us.
Luckily for Jonathan, he’s a filthy rich architect and the expired missus was a best-selling author, so not only can he stop going to work in order to record snowy TV signals, he can shell out a few thou to set himself up for this peculiar hobby.
(I’m not sure just why he feels the need for a state of the art, wide-screen TV for this endeavor. I used to get images like the ones in this film back in the 1960s and ’70s, whenever the channel drifted or when I woke up after the station signed off. I think an old Philco with rabbit ears would fit the bill — maybe even a Muntz.)
Jonathan is informed about the technique by a Mysterious Man, Raymond Price (Ian McNeice, Around the World in 80 Days), who specializes in “electronic voice phenomenon” — a technical term for this jazz about voices from beyond buried in white noise. It’s obvious that Price is aware that there are more spirits in heaven and earth than one might imagine, but when something nasty attempts to come through, he merely dismisses it by saying that all dead folks can’t be nice.
He’s right, and it’s not long before more and more evidence appears to back him up. Of course, any moderately rational person (who wasn’t following the dictates of clever writing) would take the hint and stop fooling around with white noise, but Jonathan soldiers away at his obsession with the same kind of uber-dimness that afflicts the police, who seem remarkably uninterested in his tendency to be on hand whenever a new corpse shows up.
Logic is in short supply here, and what little there is runs out long before the spectacularly silly climax, which involves a “surprise” killer, Anna’s ghost offering the sage advice, “Go now,” and three spectral creatures I like to think of as the Patty, Laverne and Maxene of mayhem. The best I can say about them is that they’re marginally more impressive than the “whispering larvae” in the recently released Darkness. Alas, that’s not saying all that much.
The worst thing about White Noise is that 90 percent of it isn’t bad enough to be funny, while 100 percent of it isn’t good enough to be good. It doesn’t help that the film has a severe case of Ring envy; in fact, seeing it drove me to watch Gore Verbinski’s film again, which only demonstrated how much White Noise wanted to be The Ring — and how pathetically it failed.
The movie’s last act — that’s the 10 percent that is bad enough to be funny — looks and plays more like a bad copy of William Malone’s style-over-substance Ring rip-off, FearDotCom. (Yes, I know that movie came out a few weeks before The Ring, but it obviously borrowed from the Japanese source film that The Ring remade.) As soon as Jonathan enters a building where it’s raining inside (though no rain was in evidence outside), you know White Noise has entered the realm of desperation from which no film returns.
The three specters and Anna all look like images projected on a wall in some dank disco. And I was never sure whether Anna was telling Jonathan — or us hapless viewers — to “go now.” Or maybe she was just stuck in an endless loop, repeating the punch line to the old joke about the guy who’s been at the Chinese buffet for four hours. The sad thing is it hardly matters.
Is White Noise a strong early contender for the worst film of 2005, as some have claimed? No, it’s too indifferent to attain that accolade, and after all, this is just the beginning of the studios’ annual white sale of movies that they expect to tank. In a few weeks, we may be longing for movies this good. And that is truly the saddest thing of all here. Rated PG-13 for violence, disturbing images and language.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke