Blanchard Ryan as Susan
Daniel Travis as Daniel
Saul Stein as Seth
Estelle Lau as Estelle
Michael E. Williamson as Davis
Christina Zenarro as Linda
John Charles as Junior
Susan and Daniel are on a much-needed vacation in the Bahamas, but their scuba-diving expedition goes wrong, when they are left stranded in the middle of the ocean surrounded by sharks, an experience that might bring them together or tear them apart quite literally.
Dubbed “The Blair Fish Project” after its debut at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, Open Water is the latest in low tech, low budget “reality filmmaking” using storytelling techniques and a small cast of unknowns to look into real-life terror. What makes Open Water‘s premise so interesting is that the filmmakers shot it entirely in the ocean, often putting themselves and their actors in mortal danger from the movie’s carnivorous denizens. Yes, folks. Those are live untrained sharks you’re seeing on screen. All in the name of getting that much more realism out of the couple’s terror.
Anyone expecting Deep Blue Sea or a movie showing two people being ripped to shreds by sharks will likely be disappointed. Sure, there is a bit of blood, but Open Water is more of an examination of the relationship between this couple trying to escape their problems back home only to get into a situation that looks to tear them apart a bit more literally. There are certainly parallels to the “stay out of the water” horror of Jaws, but there’s a lot more tension from knowing that those are real sharks you’re seeing on screen.
Unfortunately, the movie may have lost some of its effectiveness due to the amount of hype that has followed its Sundance screenings, which were viewed without half the expectations of those who will surely flock to see it.
Unlike The Blair Witch Project-the only comparison being that this is another low budget digital video production–Open Water is based on true stories about people who have been left behind in the waters to meet horrifying fates. Although it tries hard to make it seem like you’re watching real people, the editing and storytelling techniques take away from this realism by making it look like a movie. Even the reason for the couple being stranded in the ocean-a botched headcount–seems contrived and hard to swallow. It’s hard to believe that professional dive instructors would make such a bad mistake and not realize two divers are missing, and this is despite the fact that things like this have actually happened.
That doesn’t change the fact that for over an hour, you’re watching two people bobbing up and down in the water, not something that makes for riveting viewing. Frankly, most of the movie is pretty dull with only a few true scares, which come from never knowing when the sharks will appear or attack. After a few minutes of peaceful floating conversation, the sudden flash of a tail or fin is often enough to make one jump, but otherwise, the tension lies in the increasingly dangerous situation the two find themselves in the longer they’re in the water. The sharks may seem like the biggest menace, but jellyfish, the weather and darkness play equal roles in the Open Water‘s terror, not to mention the crumbling relationship as they start pointing fingers at each other. The movie’s most chilling moment comes with the night as the picture goes black and we simply hear them floating in the water, making the ever-present danger of the sharks even scarier. This is one of the few points where you really begin to feel the fear of these two people.
The movie’s strengths lie in the inventive concept, the script by director Chris Kentis, and the acting by its two unknown leads. Blanchard Ryan and Daniel Travis appear in every scene, so they have to be strong enough to carry the movie, and they certainly do act as naturally as a real couple. Their performance gets better as the movie progresses and their danger intensifies, because they really do look scared–real sharks will do that to you. Even with the preamble leading up to their predicament, there is never enough to really like either of them, so after awhile, you begin to start rooting for the sharks.
Besides the real setting and sharks, the movie technically is nothing to write home about. Shot on digital video and then blown up to 35MM, the movie has the grainy look that makes so many indie movies look unprofessional. For at least the first half of the movie, the low-fi look and sound distracts from the reality of the situation.
The Bottom Line:
Open Water is an interesting concept, and you have to give the filmmakers and actors credit for making such a daring, tension-filled movie out of such a simple story. Most of that tension comes from the expectations that come with watching a movie with real sharks, but in the end, it fails to deliver. The conclusion is just disappointing. Chronic rubberneckers may get a kick out of watching this couple fall apart as they are terrorized, but they may be able to get just as much satisfaction watching the Discovery Channel’s “Shark Week”.
Open Water opens in select cities this weekend and nationwide on August 20.