Open Water

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 12/28/04 13:22:21

"Not up to the hype, but still quite the effective thriller."
3 stars (Just Average)

There’s an interesting effect in knowing in advance the premise of “Open Water.” That the plot has been heavily hyped makes it inescapable to be equally bored and thrilled by the movie’s opening half hour. As the lead characters work their way through their average vacation, we stir in our seats, wanting to shout at the screen, “Get on with it! Get to the ocean already!” But at the same time, knowing the fate of these people - and knowing that they don’t know themselves - makes us itchy; we also want to scream warnings: “Don’t go diving! Get back to the boat early! Make sure nobody screws up the head count!!” This strange combination of suspense and tedium runs through the entire movie, making it perhaps the most boring thriller you will ever see that will still manage to thrill you like crazy.

The premise, for those who have not followed the hype, is quite simple. A vacationing couple (played by Blanchard Ryan and Daniel Travis) goes scuba diving in the Caribbean, only to get left behind by their boat. They must spend the next 24 hours treading water, avoiding sharks, and wondering when and if any rescue will come.

And that’s about it, really. Writer/director Chris Kentis has the foresight to keep his movie short (with credits, it runs a mere 79 minutes); just when the movie begins to run out of steam, it’s smart enough to wrap itself up. The film exhausts every possible route the premise has to offer - the various emotions the divers feel, the various threats the ocean presents - and then it just decides to end, knowing the audience has had about as much as it’ll take of this idea. This results in a final scene that’s a tad awkward and too out of left field (and debatable, considering the “based on true events” header the film gives itself), although this finale is saved by a closing credits sequence that’s so eerie in its mater-of-factness that it becomes unshakable from memory. If “Open Water” is to be remembered years from now, it should be for what it shows during its closing credits.

Also impesssive about the film is how it fools us into thinking it will be just another low budget indie work. Shot on video, often with cheap, poorly produced audio, “Open Water” never sets us up for the remarkable cinematography on hand once the diving begins. The underwater photography is stunning, and the above-water footage - in which the actors actually are just floating along in the ocean with no land or boat in sight - will wow you with its how’d-they-do-that wonder. (And yup, those are real sharks we see circling the cast. Yowza.) From a technical angle, this is one giant step forward for low budget indies.

All of this technical gee-whizness helps make up for a story that’s too uneven. My favorite quote regarding the movie comes from film critic Criminy Pete, who offered, “There’s a little 'just EAT 'EM already' feeling that comes in at the end.” That’s certainly true. While some scenes definitely put us on edge (the jellyfish sequence made me jump the most, and later moments managed to unsettle me fairly well), there is a tedium that sets in - just how long are these two people going to float there?

What helps provide some much needed suspense once the premise starts to get old hat is the decision on Kentis’ behalf to hold off revealing if anyone is looking for the main characters. The longer Kentis draws this out, the more anxious we become. Is help on the way, or has everyone forgotten them for good? That we do not know until the final act makes for uneasy viewing.

There are some viewers that may be quite bored by “Open Water.” It is, after all, rather repetitive, and the characters aren’t that likable to get us as interested in their fate as we could be. But the situation alone makes for some unavoidable self-questioning (it’s impossible to watch this without wondering, “what would I do?”). And the suspense does manage to carry throughout the entire running time. Kentis (who also edited and photographed the film) has crafted a flawed but ultimately quite effective thriller, a nifty little exercise in getting a lot out of not much. And besides, any movie that has its characters realizing that their survival depending on what they could remember from Shark Week has to be worth a look.

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