As Michael Keaton anxiously studies prerecorded static on one screen after another in his new film, we know he’s supposed to be searching desperately for a spectral glimpse of his character’s recently departed wife but can almost hear him wondering how the hell he ever wound up making such a dopey, totally disposable grade B thriller.
After all, it wasn’t all that long ago that Keaton was one of Hollywood’s kings of comedy. He was so major at one point he not only won the role of Batman in Tim Burton’s classic, he gave it up to go onto bigger things. To everyone’s surprise, I suspect, those things didn’t turn out to be bigger. They turned out to be increasingly measly and non-memorable. Things like Desperate Measures, Jack Frost and now White Noise.
The latest exercise in pop mysticism to emerge from Tinseltown, White Noise follows in the footsteps of films like Dragonfly, What Dreams May Come, Frequency and, most recently Birth. Keaton plays a successful architect with a storybook life that includes a young son and a wife (Chandra West) who’s not only a babe and a half but a world famous author. His luck takes a turn for the weird, however, when the Mrs disappears and a stranger (Ian McNeice) approaches him shortly thereafter to inform Keaton that a. She’s dead and b. She wants to get in touch.
The movie’s core gimmick is a paranormal pursuit that’s called Electronic Voice Phenomenon-or EVP-and involves recording the static between radio or television channels. According to believers, the careful study of these recordings can reveal messages from, even brief appearances by the dead. McNeice has a whole communication center set up in his house-banks of monitors and recording devices along with high tech equipment that allows him to isolate and clean up sounds and images of interest. He invites the grieving husband to pop by and, after receiving two calls from his wife’s deactivated cell phone, Keaton does.
The first few times we gaze into the snow and are treated to whispery phrases or out-of-focus images from beyond the grave it’s creepy fun. Unfortunately, communiques are few and far between and neither first time director Geoffrey Sax nor writer Niail Johnson appear to have appreciated the reality that watching characters watch TV screens filled with static for prolonged periods of time would inevitably prove exciting as watching paint dry.
But that’s exactly what much of White Noise consists of. Keaton sets up a communication center in his own home, fobs his traumatized son off on relatives and sits in front of monitors staring at grainy images around the clock. This does not make for gripping cinema.
When the final act roles around and something has to happen to wrap things up, what does proves shocking. Shockingly pinheaded and disappointing. Movie critic law forbids revelation of certain key details but I will risk saying this much: Stories about supernatural phenomena work only to the degree that a premise is quasi-plausible and its logic is maintained. In the climactic moments of White Noise, the filmmakers squander the little horror capital they’d managed to accrue by tossing the parameters they’d established out the window and throwing one lame, ludicrous out-of-the-blue new element after another into the story. Absolutely nothing in the picture up to this point accounts for what happens in the last ten minutes. If I run across a third act this insipid again in 2005, I’ll be truly surprised. Time to get that Best-Worst list going already.
Keaton gives an understated performance that reminds you how it was that he became such an appealing screen presence in the first place and makes you wish better material would start coming his way rather than goofy messages from the great beyond. The comeback will have to wait though. For the time being, his costars may live on in another dimension after shuffling off their mortal coils but the actor’s career shows no sign of rising from the dead.