- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 6, 2005

The movies have had plenty of time to dally with ESP. “White Noise,” which stars Michael Keaton as a bereaved widower who becomes obsessed with cryptic sound transmissions from his late wife, struggles to finesse the case for a supernatural novelty, EVP, short for electronic voice phenomenon.

Supernatural thrillers aren’t being held to daunting standards these days, but “White Noise” seems unlikely to provoke a lucrative uproar at the box office. Tentative and negligible to a fault, the movie is located in an underpopulated and unspecified city doubled by Vancouver, B.C., perhaps second only to Toronto as an all-purpose metropolitan location for budget-minded film companies.

The English team of director Geoffrey Sax and screenwriter Niall Johnson became aware of groups preoccupied with monitoring both audio and video frequencies for intelligible messages amid backgrounds of static.

Evidently, EVP adepts are persuaded that these phantom transmissions emanate from loved ones who have “passed over” into the afterlife. There seems to be a certain stumbling block, however, for the purposes of movie suspense and alarmism: The vast majority of the messages have a reassuring tenor. Indeed, a footnote after the fadeout observes that only 1 in 12 communications tends to accentuate the sinister.

Mr. Keaton’s character, Jonathan Rivers, is a successful architect with a dishy spouse, Anna (Chandra West), and a winsome little boy, Michael (Nicholas Elia). The initial domestic set-up is a bit deceiving, since it turns out that Michael is the result of a previous marriage and resides most of the time with his mother. Hero and ex, called Jane, remain on cordial terms, but the latter role is a bit thankless: Sarah Strange as Jane is entrusted with picking up the kid and lavishing pitying looks on his dad after Anna disappears and then turns up days later as an apparent drowning victim.

The filmmakers get a bit cute with their portents by identifying Anna as a popular novelist whose new book, “The Eternal Wait,” is nearing publication.

They don’t make their protagonist wait an eternity for post-mortem contact. He is approached by a portly EVP believer and researcher called Raymond Price (Ian McNeice), who claims to have recorded messages from Anna through the ether. Evidently, Rivers is the only Jonathan with a call waiting.

Price’s home shelters an elaborate recording studio tuned to the ethereal, anticipating the subsequent transformation of the Rivers abode into a similar listening post. Unwisely, the Price character is discarded after a brief acquaintance, prompting the filmmakers to shortchange another performer, Deborah Kara Unger, whom you expect to be some kind of erotic-romantic consolation. Nothing doing, alas.

Called Sarah Tate, Miss Unger’s character is a permanently apprehensive bookstore proprietor who has been a grateful client of Mr. Price. This new acquaintance is caught up in unfortunate ways in the hero’s budding obsession with the phantom incarnation of his beloved Anna, who stirs him to become a tracer of lost persons and a virtual Mr. Incredible, maneuvered to sites where he can save lives about to be hideously snuffed.

These intrepid feats, culminating in a showdown with a live psychopath and a set of vicious ghosts in a dank, derelict factory building, seem to overreach while insisting on a shotgun wedding between EVP and diabolical spectacle.

Still, someone had to pioneer the EVP pretext. The test vehicle has obvious shortcomings, but who would claim that an EVP classic is beyond the realm of possibility? Let a handful of EVP scenarios bloom.

**

TITLE: “White Noise”

RATING: PG-13

CREDITS: Directed by Geoffrey Sax. Written by Niall Johnson. Cinematography by Chris Seager. Production design by Michael S. Bolton. Costume design by Karen Matthews. Music by Claude Foisy.

RUNNING TIME: 105 minutes

WEBSITE: www.whitenoisethemovie.com

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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