Open Water (2003)

Author: Brett Gallman
Submitted by: Brett Gallman   Date : 2010-08-03 07:08

Written and Directed by: Chris Kentis
Starring: Blanchard Ryan and Daniel Travis

Reviewed by: Brett G.

“Where’s the boat, Daniel? Where’s the boat?"

So many of the killer shark films released in the wake of Jaws missed out on what made that film so effective as a horror movie. It wasn’t an abundance gore and shocks, but rather the amount of suspense and pure terror Spielberg pumped into the film. The fact that Jaws literally made people scared of the water is a testament to the film’s effectiveness. While there is certainly a place for all the schlock-filled Jaws knock-offs, it seems like every single one of them took that route. It took nearly 30 years before Open Water finally arrived on the scene and attempted to do something a little different. An exercise in psychological fear, the film attempted to hark back to that primal fear of the unknown and the big, dangerous open seas.

David Kitner and Susan Watkins (both Jaws-inspired names) are a couple of workaholics in need of a vacation. They hastily book a scuba diving trip to ease their stress, and everything is going swimmingly until a mix-up occurs with the head count. As a result, the two are left stranded out in the middle of the ocean with no help in sight. The two aren’t alone, however, as they soon encounter sharks. Though they were earlier assured that the sharks in these waters are harmless, David and Susan aren’t convinced. They experience a night of pure terror, and they can only hope that someone on the mainland will realize that they’re missing.

Though Open Water is only inspired by a similar real-life event, it feels like it could be a documentary of a real occurrence. Though it doesn’t take the “found footage” route of something like The Blair Witch Project, it still feels very much like that film due to Kentis’s minimalist, fly-on-the-wall approach. This technique doesn’t make for a very cinematic experience, but it isn’t supposed to; instead, it heightens the realism of the picture and feels very raw. As such, it does an excellent job of capturing the horror that the two characters are experiencing. For most of the its running time, the film uses the most scant of sets: it’s just the two actors in the vast ocean, and it’s a really terrifying idea.

If that weren’t enough, the film throws in sharks as well. We’re not talking about your standard mechanical or CGI-created beasts either; instead, in an effort to strive for authenticity, real sharks were used. I’m not sure exactly how they accomplished some of the shots where the sharks are actually in frame with (and very close to) the actors, but I’m guessing it just took a lot of guts on their part. This only heightens the film’s intensity because the eventual attacks also feel so visceral and real because they happen so quickly and suddenly. As far as shark films go, it’s really like no other because of this approach, and it doesn’t ever really feel like a “shark movie.” Rather, the beasts just happen to show up in such a natural and believable way and work well within the narrative.

A film like this is obviously carried by its lead actors. I find it odd that these films often use relatively unknown actors who deliver the most convincing of performances, and Open Water is no different. The combination of the documentary style and the performances really has you convinced that you’re watching an actual couple. Throughout their happiest and most despairing moments, the two never stop feeling real. When they bicker out in the middle of the ocean over trivial matters, it sounds like something that would actually happen. Likewise, the playful banter between the two is equally as effective. Though the film is short, there are stretches where we’re only watching the two small-talk, but it’s never too boring because the two actors inhabit the roles so well and make them feel like real people with real histories together.

The way that Kentis captures it all just seems so natural and easy. Even though the budget was miniscule, it’s still a very intense and calculated film. Though it sounds simple, the film manages to especially capture the feeling of complete loneliness and isolation is well done. As such, it’s a pretty atmospheric film, both from a visual and auditory standpoint. Obviously, the low-lit, DV look captures the pure rawness of the situation, but the film’s sound design is equally engaging because it sounds like you’ve been dropped right into the middle of the ocean. The film’s effectiveness in both of these respects comes to a head during the climax, which takes place in pitch blackness, saved for some periodic lightning strikes. I always thought one of the underrated qualities of Jaws was how eerie its night scenes were, and Open Water feels similar. It’s bad enough when you’re swimming in daylight and can’t see below you, but it’d be even worse not to be able to see anything at all.

That really gets to the heart of what makes Open Water so effective: that fear of the unknown and of being in a helpless situation. It’s a film whose realism forces you to ponder “what would I do?,” but you soon realize there really is no answer to that question. It took a while, but the film did show that the killer shark genre was capable of churning out something just a little different. All it took was a simple mash-up of cinema vérité and shark fins, but it worked. By default, it’s one of the best shark films, but it also happens to be a pretty good thriller otherwise. Lions Gate released the film on DVD, and it’s a very good disc presentation wise. The transfer does the best it can with the material--it looks a bit harsh and digital, but it’s supposed to. The audio is where the disc bares its teeth though, particularly the 6.1 DTS track that’s absolutely immersive. Special features include a director’s commentary, actors’ commentary, deleted scenes, and a making-of documentary. There aren’t many shark films out there that can claim to be legitimately interesting and different experiences, so Open Water is one that you should reel in if you haven’t given it a look. No need to throw it back, either. Buy it!

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