Except for a vigorous turn from star Michael Keaton, White Noise, the feature debut of British TV director Geoffrey Sax, is a by-the-numbers thriller that catapults a successful architect into a hellish adventure after his best-selling novelist wife dies and dispatches messages from the other side. Sustained interest in the film requires admiration for Keaton (check!) and a belief in and/or sincere fascination with the notion of Electronic Voice Phenomenon (negative!).
EVP, as it is mercifully known, posits that the dead communicate with the living through sound and image, especially the static, snow and white noise of modern electronic hardware (TVs, radios, computers, recorders). The paranormal phenomenon surely has its millions of converts, but White Noise is so silly, it just may turn many into non-believers.
For starters, if "voice" is the heart of all things EVP, why do images of the dead bleed through all the static? Is this a stretch to make EVP more cinematic? White Noise further messes with the concept by having its dispatches strictly local, not long-distance. Is there some kind of area-code rule the dead must adhere to? But equal opportunity is in play: Both good dead and bad dead are able to communicate.
The story that pulls together all the nonsense kicks off with the usual set-up-a family so happy and wholesome, you know something's gotta give. Jonathan Rivers (Keaton) is a big-city architect living in a gorgeous, modern waterside house with celebrity author wife Anna (Chandra West) and sweet kid Mike (Nicholas Elia).
The family's domestic bliss ends when Anna disappears from her car one night near an embankment. Soon after her body is found, Jonathan gets a mysterious call that appears to be from Anna's cell phone. An appropriately geeky and slovenly stranger named Raymond (Ian McNeice), who specializes in EVP out of his appropriately messy Victorian house, informs Jonathan that he's getting signals from Anna.
After dismissing Raymond and his crazy claims, Jonathan becomes a believer when he too gets murky signals from Anna and sets up his own electronic command center of multiple monitors, recorders, the works at home. Jonathan soon befriends Sarah Tate (Deborah Kara Unger), who has also been communicating with her dead fiancé.
When Jonathan discovers Raymond murdered and he and Sarah uncover his logbook, it becomes clear that Raymond had been collecting information even before the dead died and that some of the dead are profoundly evil. In fact, Anna eventually warns Jonathan that he must save the future victims of the sadistic psychopath who took her life. Eventually, Jonathan is spun into a mission to save Mary Freeman (Suzanne Ristic) and ends up (at night, of course) in a sprawling, vacant, dank, rain-soaked warren of a deserted dockside factory to do battle.
Keaton, so gifted in comic roles and so watchable in serious ones (Clean and Sober, most notably, and Pacific Heights), has little more to do in White Noise than deliver what might be a record-breaking battery of close-ups as the anguished, horrified, calculating, stymied hero. Keaton now has the craggy face and conviction to make these moments believable, but the script gives him no dialogue or plotline to take his emotionally fraught moments further.
Technically, the film brims with enough crackling static and grainy monitor images to incite a boycott of all things electronic and render remotes as comforting as pacifiers. Dramatically, an attempted suicide is gratuitous, as is the message of closure.
The snappy editing does keep things moving, but the frequent montages warning that bad things are happening make no sense. All in all, White Noise is thin stuff offering no cause for celebration.