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Open Water (2003)

by on 2010/10/11

I’ve tried to watch Open Water in the past but for one reason or another never managed to finish.  I don’t believe it was because of fear, unless it was the proverbial fear of fear itself; I’m no great fan of discomfiting thrills.  The truth is:  now that I’ve seen it through, I understand it to be less a horror show than one of intense protracted suspense.  The publicity stills would have you believe this is a film with a focus on sharks, but here you’ll find not so much Jaws as The Mist.  If you like your scares gore-free, then jump in.

As a child in school, I was taught (somewhat over-simplistically) of the three types of stories:  man vs environment, man vs man, and man vs self.  Open Water casts its net wide enough to catch some of each.  Protagonists Susan (Blanchard Ryan) and Daniel (Daniel Travis) are a yuppie couple too distracted by work to avoid drifting apart.  They need a vacation, and intend to do some tropical diving.  Unfortunately, due to a miscount, they are abandoned by their scuba group, miles offshore, in shark-infested waters.  As time passes, the couple faces a series of challenges:  the water, the weather, the locals, and themselves.  Missed opportunities, false hopes, and blame games prove as dangerous as the elements, but their experience is not quite My Lifeboat Dinner With Andre.

Chris Kentis does a reasonable job with the direction, even if his script leaves something to be desired.  The story itself is decidedly simple, and the dialogue can be uneven, but there is a strong sense of pacing to his work.  While it’s hard to identify much with the main characters — their problems feel unsympathetically first world — I don’t necessarily dislike them.  Through no fault of the actors, they simply exist, placeholding.  A better job is done with the staging.  Nice touches fill the brief time established on shore.  The open doors and windows, coconut carving in the markets, retirees dancing to perpetual party music . . . everything suggests an alien world, even before the abandonment.  In fact the immersion is so effective that the entry point of plot feels like a clumsy interruption.  Most viewers would accept that accidents will happen but — in the apparent attempt to avoid any possible misunderstanding — we get an overt demonstration of the error and its rationale which feels forced, tangential, and even somewhat insulting.

Other aspects are subtler though, some brilliantly so.  The story, while spare, is well told and never dull.  Patterns emerge in the cycling events, like the very waves, tides, day and night, the rhythms toying with us:  the insinuation of predators (from jokes, through sightings, to closer contact); the emotional stages building to panic (disbelief, rationalizing, and accusation); the pathetic fallacy of weather (a series of darkening montages, accompanied by some truly chilling audio).  The usual tools of editing stitch it all together in a pulsing succession of jabs and feints, ebbs and flows, terror and dread.  Canted angles unbalance us.  Waves disrupt our lines of sight.  Shots tighten myopically.  Fast cuts and whip pans simulate the panic, teasing before a lull, then dropping underwater for a deafening silent perspective.

However for all my admiration of the craft — particularly given the lack of resources in such an independent production — I don’t know what it’s in aid of.  The heroes-slash-victims suffer, yes, but how do they evolve?  Desperate prayers and panic are hardly an arc.  While it may seem trite to look for lessons, intended or not, there is usually a view to be found in almost any tale.  I simply can’t fathom the message here.  “Live every moment as if it were your last?”  “Sometimes you get the bear, and sometimes the bear gets you?”  “Don’t go scuba diving unless you’ve been implanted with a personal locator?”  None of it sits quite right for me.

Thus Open Water illustrates one of my inherent issues with criticism.  No matter how much sympathy I have for the effort, no matter how effectively the tale has been told, I want the final piece to inform or entertain me, hopefully both.  Though this movie is promoted as being “based on true events” it doesn’t actually know all that happened, and changes much of what did.  So “inspired by” may be more accurate, and informing us is right out.  As for entertainment, I’m simply not the target market.  To be entertained, I’d need to enjoy myself or at least be curious enough about the characters to care about their fate.

* * *

Rated 14A/R for language and nudity

79 minutes

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