In the imaginative universe of J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, there exists a magical mirror, the Mirror of Erised, which reveals the “deepest and most desperate desires of our heart.” Dumbledore explains its powers to Harry, who had managed to discover the mirror and to see in it an image of his dead parents smiling happily back at him. Dumbledore warns Harry that the mirror “gives neither knowledge nor truth.” “Men have wasted away” staring into the mirror and “gone mad.” It “does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live.” It is one of many wonderful contrivances in Rowling’s books, this one with an important lesson about apparently innocuous fantasies.
Although it focuses on attempts to communicate with the dead, to capture (by electronic means) the reassuring voice of past happiness, the newly released film White Noise, starring Michael Keaton, is neither as imaginative nor as instructive as the Potter books.
White Noise tells the story of Jonathan Rivers (Michael Keaton) who at the outset is living in wedded bliss with his second wife, Anna (Chandra West), a gorgeous novelist. Anna soon dies under mysterious circumstances. Jonathan pines for her. Then, at the instigation of a stranger named Raymond (Ian McNeice) who claims he’s been receiving Anna’s messages from the other side, Jonathan attempts to receive communications via EVP (electronic voice phenomenon) from Anna.
Most of what happens in the film, particularly in its opening sequences, is predictable and designed for obvious emotional manipulation. The dialogue focuses on how happy the couple is and then, as Anna leaves, Jonathan makes a point of asking her to be safe. The film even makes a point of stressing the title of Anna’s latest novel, the rather unsubtle, The Eternal Wait. The opening is tiresome in another respect. It beats us over the head with the message that technology pervades our lives. Car radio, TV, phone–each is capable of communicating something but also of going fuzzy on us just at the crucial moment. The two heavy-handed themes dovetail in the scene where Anna pulls out of her driveway for the last time and says something to Jonathan, the sound of which is drowned out by her car radio.
Some time after his wife’s death, Jonathan fears he’s being stalked by a man who claims to have received communications from Anna. At first he resists. Then, after a number of odd events, all of which involve electronic gadgets and seem to happen at 2:30 A.M. (the moment his wife died?), he decides to pay Raymond a visit. There, he encounters a teary-eyed but relieved woman who claims she’s just received a clear communication from her dead fiancé. His message? “Sarah, yes.” She takes this to mean that her dead partner is fulfilling his their agreement (a sort of New Age pre-nup) that, if one of them should die, that one must communicate to the other whether life after death is happy, as they imagine it to be. “I’ve heard what I wanted to know,” Sarah concludes.
The brevity of the communications from the recently deceased means you are out of luck unless you have formulated in advance a question to which there can be a very concise answer. Would that Jonathan were so lucky, but Anna has much more in mind for him. When he finally finds her wavelength, it turns out that she is less interested in communicating her love or happiness than in employing Jonathan to aid the living who are in immediate danger. This requires a good bit of amateur detective work on Jonathan’s part because, while Anna’s screams, “Go, now!” come in loud and clear, her responses to his reasonable follow-up question, “Where?” are inexplicably muddled.
At this point, the film, which can never decide whether it wants to be another Poltergeist, Sixth Sense, or something else, morphs into a hunt for a serial killer, who turns out to be channeling the rather unfriendly types who dwell on the other side, the ones, as Raymond describes them, “who intend harm.” These characters are by far the most interesting in the film and they manage in a few sequences toward the end to provide the only genuine scares in the entire movie.
White Noise thus turns out to be quite a different film from what it is at the beginning, although it is difficult to say which is the inferior part. What is clear is that the film is so taken with its mediocre, high-tech gimmickry of listening to the dead and its cheesy horror-story effects that it misses a very important theme, concerning the burden of grief over death. Neglecting the living, especially his young son from a previous marriage, Jonathan embodies the vices about which Dumbledore warns Harry, the danger of going mad and forgetting to live by inordinate attention to dreams. But then again we wouldn’t want an audience to have to think, would we?
Apparently, there is some important issue here. In an interview with the Dallas Morning News, Michael Keaton observes, “we’ve evolved technologically 20 times faster than we have emotionally.” He also boasts a bit about how this film will not require viewers to think; people are too busy and tired to think, says Keaton, and, in case you were wondering, he adds that this is the reason Kerry lost the election: “People felt he thought too much.”
In fact, White Noise would be a more pleasant film–still bad, but less irritating–if it didn’t ask us to think. Whenever it engages the intellect, the film unravels at its seams. The film begins with a quotation from Thomas Edison about the prospects for electronic instruments to capture something of our passing from this life to the next. Like The Day After Tomorrow’s plea for the reality of global warming, White Noise’s case for EVP rests less upon painstaking science than upon weird science for dramatic effect.
At the end of the film, the filmmakers saw fit to include a scientific point of clarification: Only a very small percentage of the communications from the other side actually intend harm. Too bad the same cannot be said for Hollywood films.
–Thomas Hibbs, an NRO contributor, is author of Shows About Nothing.