In the ads for the new ultra-realistic low budget thriller “Open Water,” two quotes are being used more often than any others.
“The best shark movie since ‘Jaws’!” -Brian Raftery, GQ
“Prepare to jump out of your skin.” -Peter Travers, Rolling Stone
After reading these excited endorsements (and after seeing the non-scary “Exorcist” prequel just hours before), I went into “Open Water” prepared for sheer terror. That’s not exactly what I got. This is a bad thing, however, only from the standpoint of my expectations. While the film never truly terrified me, it did left me thinking about the tenuous nature of human life.
“Open Water” has a detached documentary-style feel to it, partially because it was entirely shot on low-budget digital video. The colors are washed out, and nothing in the film is even remotely glamourous. Shots of the surrounding Caribbean coast only seem to bolster the sensation that we are watching a vacation movie, albeit one that has gone horribly wrong.
The film also feels real because of the little moments that director Chris Kentis has chosen to show us. The plot is as simple as it gets. A couple gets stranded in the middle of the ocean, left behind after their scuba-diving tour boat forgets about them. Since he has nothing else to advance, no other agndas or subplots to present, Kentis can give us a look at how real people would act in this frightening situation.
Dialogue is sparse, and much of it is inconsequential. Susan (Blanchard Ryan) and Daniel (Daniel Travis) are entirely new faces, so we don’t see them as actors. They talk like people we know, not characters on the movie screen. Glimpses we see of their personal life before they go to sea are short, but telling, showing that a whole host of resentments are already building up between them. These two are a couple in jeopardy before they even reach the ocean.
It is this precise, deadpan delivery that sucks us into “Open Water.” Even the mix-up on the boat that leaves them stranded at sea is handled with such little fanfare that it puts an exclamation point on the couple being treated like an afterthought. That is the truly scary part of this movie.
Once the couple is out to sea, the movie loses a bit of steam. Bonus credit to Kentis and his actors for swimming around real sharks. It serves the vibe of the story to keep everything as authentic as possible. And there are more real dangers to being stranded at sea than sharks alone. Water temperature, lack of food, sickness, and other dangers such as jellyfish are all included in the movie, but it all feels like well-organized, yet unfinished chapters.
Ironically, it is the authenticity of the event that sinks some of “Open Water’s” dramatic effect. Kentis brings on the realization, for example, that sharks are swimming in the area multiple times. Susan and Daniel become aware of the danger, get a little worked up, and then, before you know it, the sharks are gone. We don’t know, of course, that they are gone for any other reason other than the filmmaker has chosen to fade out that particular scene and move on to the next struggle. This fear of what lurks below them is effective as a device, but without more clever or closer camera angles, keeping that fear afloat is a difficult task indeed. Ultimately, there are some tense moments, but they cannot sustain the film’s already short, 79-minute running time.
Thus, the movie tends to drag a little bit while viewing it. I’m sure that being stranded in the middle of the ocean also drags a bit. So it is only upon reflection that its subtleties actually sink in.
It’s not really a “shark movie,” and you won’t jump out of your skin. “Open Water” doesn’t deliver the shocks and horrors that its ad campaign seems to promise. It simply is not that kind of a movie. In fact, it doesn’t seem like a movie at all. It claims to be based on true events, and genuinely looks as though we are witnessing those events first-hand.
In fact, even the movie’s ending is another quiet moment that passes with little fanfare, underscoring the truly frightening point that the smallest, seemingly insignificant mistake can change your life forever.