When your holiday goes sour and some screw-up leaves you stranded at the airport, you probably don't think: At least I'm not floating out in the middle of the ocean with a bunch of sharks for company. That's exactly what happens to the bad-luck couple in Open Water, and it's the sort of insurmountable setback that you've never considered. Until now.
For most of Open Water's 79 minutes, you may think of little else, as you vicariously tread water with Daniel (Daniel Travis) and Susan (Blanchard Ryan). They're an over-scheduled, passive-aggressive husband and wife -- an Everycouple -- who book a last-minute trip to a Caribbean beach resort. After engaging in some goofy touristy things -- including posing with a giant set of shark teeth (uh oh) -- the two book passage on a diving expedition.
First thing in the morning, they're dropped overboard in the open sea, where they swim away from the group to mingle with fish. Unbeknownst to them, the tour boat -- which has made an initial faulty head-count -- packs up and returns to shore, leaving Susan and Daniel afloat in the great inhospitable, shark-filled expanse of the sea.
The rest of us are bobbing on the sea of advance hype about this low-low-budget indie thriller that had trend-watchers at Sundance earlier this year squealing about "The Blair Shark Project." While not pretending to be a documentary, Open Water does purport to be based on true events, and its stranded no-name actors freaking out on digital video bears some familiarity to 1999's surprise cheapie hit, The Blair Witch Project.
For his debut, filmmaker Chris Kentis has latched onto a great premise -- there is genuine horror to being left adrift at sea. Without intervention, death is inevitable, if not one horrible way, then another. The trouble is, a nifty idea doesn't always equal a wholly engaging full-length film.
There is a good deal of filler -- nearly a third of the film takes place before the ill-fated dive trip. Later, Kentis intercuts shots of the two at sea with random footage of people having fun on land. It's both a stretching trick and an obvious comment on the couple's predicament, but still effective: Yes actually, I would rather be having a piña colada at the hotel bar than waiting in the all-consuming watery blackness for a shark to bite my guts out.
Open Water does build a palpable sense of anxiety. Left with little to do but watch two people miserably bob up and down, I fretted. I even worried about the actors: Kentis employs no tricks, and Ryan and Travis, weighed down with scuba gear and buffeted by waves, look truly uncomfortable.
Despite the easy immediacy that digital video brings (not to mention the production savings), the format too often renders the film flat, a real drawback when the unfathomable depth of sea and sky is a supporting player. Also, the digital camerawork fares poorly underwater, reducing those scenes to dark murk. Mostly, Kentis wisely keeps his camera close in on his two actors.
As such, Open Water is essentially a one-set, two-man play, and Kentis, who also wrote the script, aims for a cranky-married verisimilitude that plays out like everyday bickering ("Now aren't you glad you let me watch Shark Week?") delivered by moderately capable actors. I wished he had dared to add a deeper set of character revelations than these petty recriminations. It would be artifice to graft personal discovery onto this bizarre experience, but within the realm of how we understand created narrative it would also be acceptable -- and would make the final third of the film, after we've truly settled in for a good soaking, more captivating than the series of sulks it becomes.
When the sharks finally appear, they're a welcome distraction. By then, I was open enough to the process of "what if ..." and mildly annoyed by the unresolved squabbling ("Are you saying this is my fault?") to be able to see the shark's perspective: These landlubbers aren't being attacked unprovoked; they're in shark territory.
Despite its flaws, Open Water deserves commendation for proving several things in today's theatrical market. One, a simple idea often provides a great hook. Two, dedication -- Kentis shot on weekends and holidays with a skeleton crew -- can trump bloated budgets. Three, using real ocean and real sharks -- Kentis dumped his actors off the Bahamas and lured sharks into camera range with bloody bait -- is worth a thousand special-effects shots. And four, America loves to be scared by sharks, and they'll pay for the thrill.
Like Blair Witch, Open Water is akin to an indie-style B-movie: a catchy premise that requires few actors and can be produced on a shoestring that still delivers a few jolts to the cheap seats. And if Blair Witch kept you out of the woods, Open Water may dissuade you from future seagoing adventures. Private getaways are one thing, but nobody wants a holiday this secluded.