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My older brother and I once had a morbid conversation where we compared the worst ways to die. For myself, I chose Edgar Allen Poe's old phobia, being buried alive. My brother on the other hand chose being trapped in the middle of the ocean, being hunted by a shark. The way he put it, he had a great point. Both of our fears actually amounted to the same thing, being alone with your thoughts, knowing you were going to die, even if you didn't know exactly when. He described being in the middle of the water with no help in sight. Suddenly, you feel something bump you hard. Instinctively, you react. It was the shark, but he wasn't killing you. He was just making sure you were alive and now you've given yourself away. That same shark can afford to circle you for hours if need be, until he finally decides to eat you - maybe all at once, maybe a little at a time. I salute my older brother for having such an intense imagination.
Chances are, he would hate OPEN WATER, a film which is basically his fear stretched out to almost eighty minutes. The film claims it is based on true events, although "inspired" would be a better word for it. In 1998, Tom and Eileen Lonergan's boat left them behind in the middle of the Great Barrier Reef, where they were scuba diving. The couple's bodies were never found, but I will not reveal to you whether the characters in OPEN WATER share in that fate or not.
In the film, Daniel and Susan Kintner (Daniel Travis and Blanchard Ryan, respectively) head off for a tropical paradise where they hope to leave their troubles behind. The couple seems happy but Daniel hopes the trip will make Susan forget about her high stress producing job for a while. Things go fine for a long while. That is, until they head off with a diving crew in the middle of the ocean.
Because of a mix-up, there are left behind as their boat returns to shore. Daniel and Susan are stuck in the middle of the ocean with only each other for support. They are also starting to drift with the current, which would make any rescue of them difficult. Worse yet, they can see fins circling them.
Most of the film focuses on these two people huddled together for comfort. It deals with their conversations, their panic and their fears. It's like WAITING FOR GODOT, except with less depth and more morbidity. If you're one of the people who didn't care for THE BLAIR WITH PROJECT because too much time was spent dealing with the people freaking out over their situation without actually showing much real horror, you're going to hate this film even more. Fortunately, that is exactly what I loved about THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, although OPEN WATER still doesn't capture the same spark.
OPEN WATER is more or less a success, although it doesn't come close to justifying the hype surrounding it. Pretty much all of the credit for what does work goes to the assured performances of Blanchard Ryan and Daniel Travis. We have zero difficulty believing that this is a couple who has been married long enough to grow accustomed to each other, but short enough to make their relationship just as intense and fragile as when it first began. Often, their conversations are of the moment. There is no, "Remember that time..." or "When I was a kid..." stuff here, although their personal baggage becomes an issue as the stress wears on them. It feels very real and authentic. Both Ryan and Travis do a great job here and I only hope they don't suffer a similar fate of having their careers disappear into the ether like the BLAIR WITCH kids.
Also it was an inspired idea to use real sharks in their fleeting glimpses during the filming. Yes, the actors are in the water with the sharks and you can occasionally see the sharks swim underneath. The actors were assured that the sharks were tame. I have to call "bullshit" there. Put me in the same vicinity as a predator whose sole instinct is to hunt, kill and feed and one of us isn't making it out of there alive. And I'm not being tough, since I would probably be the one to end up as chum.
The use of real sharks was not a necessity, but it helped make the film much more convincing. It wouldn't have been hard to insert a CGI shot, even on a low budget. There are plenty of nature run amok films that use this technique on the cheap, but it isn't as convincing. Here, every time you see a shark pop up or some close to the leads, your heart skips a beat. It works.
What doesn't work is just about everything else. Although Chris Kentis does a great job using real sharks, his direction in general is pretty flat. The moment they are in the water, the entire film is shot in handheld DV. There isn't much creativity to it either, aside from one sequence during a nighttime thunderstorm. Kentis is content to simply show the two leads bobbing in the water and every now and then show a fin. More is needed in order to hold our interest. His direction is paradoxically fluid and entertaining when on land, and flat and aloof when in the water.
Someone on the alt.horror newsgroup mentioned that the film would have benefitted from a little more underwater photography. I would agree with this assessment. I see where Kentis is going, that by showing them mostly from the waist up, you don't know quite what's going on underneath. But that only works when you have enough interesting things going on above water. Kentis' direction may be hit and miss, but the script is flat out dull. The brief moments of suspense can't hide the fact that nothing much happens during the film. All of the action is spent on the surface, both physically and emotionally. There is not enough human drama to go around. This is a couple who needed to be delivered to death's door in order to discover how much they meant to one another. It's the most intriguing aspect of the film, moreso than the sharks which quite frankly, we could see on the Discovery Channel. But you don't get enough of this. Ryan and Travis do wonders with what they are given but to be honest, they are not given a hell of a lot.
Originally, I was going to criticize OPEN WATER for what I perceived was an inherent sense of sadism. There is a definite sleaze factor here, and it isn't the good kind. I was thinking of phrases like "pseudo snuff" and the like. But the fact is that I cannot criticize the film for this without sounding like a complete hypocritical jackass. DERANGED, PSYCHO and THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE all used the Ed Gein murders as an inspiration for their story. THE EXORCIST was inspired by a real alleged possession. So I don't know why I was all set to point a self-righteous finger at the makers of OPEN WATER. Maybe it's that the disappearance of Tom and Eileen Lonergan doesn't seem nearly as removed from reality as the previously mentioned events. Maybe it's that it is more recent. Or maybe and probably, it is the marketing of the film leading the viewer to believe that this is their story when in fact it deals with a different pair of people. If they had actually put the real people in their, they would have had to drastically change the film, allege what happened and sell it off as entertainment. Hollywood tried to take that course when they made THE PERFECT STORM and it left a sour taste in my mouth. Here, Kentis manages to cause a sense of overall discomfort and vulnerability, which seems to be the point. The film is actually better because of it. But unlike other filmmakers, he stops short of graverobbing. So, bravo for that I guess.
OPEN WATER falls far short of meeting its potential. A better script and more assured direction on the water could have greatly assisted it. As it stands, Ryan and Travis give great performances and they are the reason the film works as well as it does. Their fine work keeps the film afloat, if you'll pardon the pun.