Just once, I'd like to see a ghost movie that doesn't treat spirits like they’re a bunch of idiots. Really, if you were a ghost on the "other side" who was able to communicate with humans, move objects around, and do other cool, spooky things, wouldn't you just pick up a pencil, write everything down, and be done with it? Instead, in most of these movies, the ghosts are limited to slamming doors and rattling chains -- or, in the utterly lame-brained 'White Noise,' reduced to speaking in monosyllables via the static on a boombox. Talk about an ineffectual way of communicating from beyond the grave.
Not that such questions should really be any concern in 'White Noise,' a pedestrian thriller that’s more concerned with mawkish sentimentality than in seriously exploring the paranormal. Like similar "supernatural weepies" such as 'Ghost,' 'Premonition' and 'What Dreams May Come,' the film uses a gimmicky premise not to tell a credible tale, but to reassure us that, yes, there is an afterlife, and that even the insipid characters in these movies have a higher purpose. Throw in another bunch of ineffectual ghosts who can't do more than throw temper tantrums on the TV, and 'White Noise' is a movie that desperately wants to be the next 'Poltergeist,' but forgot to include a coherent story and actual scares.
The "gimmick" of 'White Noise' is E.V.P., or Electronic Voice Phenomenon, which paranormal believers interpret as evidence that the undead are trying to communicate to us through the static on our TV screens and radios. Apparently, the "frequencies" ghosts use to speak are embedded in the wavelengths of everyday white noise sources, so if you record them (even using something as ordinary as a Radio Shack tape deck) and play it back with just a bit of a volume boost, you too can hear these voices from beyond.
As 'White Noise' begins, Jonathan Rivers (Michael Keaton) doesn't believe in any of this E.V.P. hokum. That is, until his wife, famous novelist Anna Rivers (Chandra West) dies under mysterious circumstances, and he begins to receive messages from her from beyond the grave. Descending into the subculture of fellow E.V.P. enthusiasts, he meets a widow, Sarah Tate (Deborah Kerr Unger), who joins Jonathan in his obsessive attempts to uncover the truths beyond their respective spouses' deaths.
At this point, it seems 'White Noise' will play like a 'Ghost'-lite, with Keaton as a spear-side Demi Moore learning to overcome his grief thanks to the miracle of E.V.P. Unfortunately, the script by Niall Johnson isn't content to just rip off one movie, and instead completely flies off the rails in the second half, as Anna begins to psychically "guide" Jonathan to the scenes of impending crimes, turning him into a big-screen version of Patricia Arquette in TV’s "Medium." Throw in a band of "evil" ghosts, a series of poorly-executed action-rescue scenes, and even a third-act detour into torture porn(!), and you have one muddled mess of a supernatural thriller.
Perhaps if all of this had been staged with some suspense and flair, I could have thrown disbelief to the wind and bought the script's more hackneyed contrivances. Unfortunately, director Geoffrey Sax's admittedly slick visual style is all surfaces. He makes a brave attempt to pump up the dull material with lots of arty motifs (repeated dissolves of static into water etc.), but it only underscores the flimsiness of the story. On top of that, for a supernatural thriller, 'White Noise' is just plain boring. The endless shots of Keaton staring (and staring...and staring...) at static-filled TV screens possess not one iota of suspense, and even the film’s cheap "Boo!" scares fail to deliver any jolts. Add to that a listless performance by the usually fine Keaton, and you have a film that's dramatically and visually inert.
Sadly, even for die-hard fans of ghost stories and the true believers of the supernatural, there is little in 'White Noise’ that’s worth recommending. Even with a debatable phenomenon like E.V.P., the film plays fast and loose with the facts. It also throws psychic phenomenon, ESP, telekinesis, and fortune telling into the mix, ultimately making the film feel like one big cheat. Although even the greatest genre films (from 'The Exorcist' to 'Rosemary's Baby') have their fair share of credibility issues, they manage to suspend our disbelief by creating their own internal logic. 'White Noise' doesn't work on the level of the paranormal, it doesn't work on the level of a good thriller, and it doesn't work on the level of a supernatural romance. It just plain doesn't work.
Although Universal's history with catalog titles has been hit or miss as of late, I’m happy to report that this 1080p/VC-1 encode is easily the best I've seen from the studio in quite a while.
'White Noise' is not shot like your typical ghost story. It actually has quite a sterile look, with lots of steely surfaces and little in the way of dark, gothic atmosphere. Though not overly bright, much of the film takes place in daylight, so the transfer has a very stark, clear, attractive veneer. Detail is very good to exceptionals. Colors are not incredibly vibrant, but they are very well saturated, and never bleed or smear. Sharpness is superior for a Universal title, with none of the annoying edge enhancement and obvious ringing that have plagued other HD DVD catalog releases from the studio.
Alas, there is plenty of noise apparent in dark scenes, sometimes to the point of distraction, and it grows particularly noticeable on areas of heavy color. At times, the image tends to grow fuzzy and flat in the shadows. Otherwise, this is a nice encode, and there are no other major artifacts. So aside from the "noise" problem, 'White Noise' stands tall as a better effort from Universal.
Universal provides Dolby TrueHD (48kHz/16-bit) and Dolby Digital-Plus (1.5mbps, in both English and French) 5.1 Surround options for 'White Noise.' Unfortunately, I wasn't as impressed by the audio as I was with the video.
Simply put, the film’s sound design is surprisingly bland for a suspense flick. Despite a few lame "gotcha!" scares, the surrounds are rarely engaged to any appreciable effect. Discrete sounds are limited to a few bursts of score stingers, but then fall silent (this is definitely a flick that could have used some ambiance).
On the bright side, the tech specs are up to snuff with the TrueHD track enjoying a wide dynamic range and healthy (but not booming) bass. Dialogue is also nicely balanced, and I suffered no volume level issues. It's just too bad there is little to distinguish this mix -- it's serviceable, but entirely forgettable.
'White Noise' first hit standard DVD back in mid-2005 with a decent if unexceptional package of extras. This HD DVD contains the same stuff (and still in 480p/i/MPEG-2 video), and as you might expect, it hasn't improved any in the interim.
'White Noise' is a forgettable thriller that’s never scary, believable, or thought-provoking. As for this HD DVD -- the video is snazzy, the audio is fair, and the extras are pretty cheesy. Worth a look for fans of the film, but all others – you’ve been warned.