Though it has been repeatedly called a scary movie, Open Water isn’t very. It is, instead, clever and disturbing. It makes cagey use of a gimmick, namely, a young couple plopped down in an endless sea, where they confront one another, themselves, and sharks. It has also deployed a sensational marketing campaign, repeatedly noting that real sharks are swimming around stars Blanchard Ryan and Daniel Travis.
As Ryan tells USA Today, “For press purposes, the braver people think we are, that’s fantastic. In truth, they’ve had dives with this same population of sharks every single day for years at 10, noon and two. The boat comes up and they’re like pigeons — ‘We’re here, guys.’ They have never even had a close call in all these years” (5 August 2004). You’d think it was a good — not to mention sane — thing that actors were not called on to risk their lives for a movie, and yet, the movie’s promotional campaign presses the “real danger” point. Call it the Fear Factor factor, pop culture pleasure reduced to visceral thrill, the yuckier the better. According to this thinking, consumers are lured by “believing” in on-screen pain and degradation.
While effective, the tactic is also tiresome; promoting what seems familiar about the film omits what makes it different. And while Open Water is uneven, it is also a stark, surprisingly downbeat character study with a dash of social criticism. A movie about people with problems who don’t arrive at a happy moralistic finale, whose dire tragedies and small strengths are at once awful and ordinary, it demonstrates that it’s still possible to make a summer movie that isn’t overstated, over-excited, or over-explanatory.
In this context, Open Water‘s self-announced limits are intriguing. Shot on digital video, running only 79 minutes, and based on a series of real-life articles in Dive magazine, Chris Kentis’ film follows the dreadful adventures of Susan (Ryan) and Daniel (Travis), upscale workaholics who decide to leave behind their manicured lawn, cell phones, and laptops and spend a few days on an island paradise, the kind that comes with steel drums and gentle chants on the soundtrack.
Susan and Daniel spend a day or so acclimating to their abnormal downtime, a night not having sex (she’s not “in the mood”), and then, at last, head off on a diving excursion with a boatload of tourists with tanks and flippers. The diving itself is pretty, with underwater camerawork revealing the usual: eels, jellyfish, and pretty rocks, the couple’s bubbles blooping to the surface, vague signs they don’t exactly fit into this serene-seeming natural scenario. Cut to the boat, where the guy in charge is assiduously miscounting off returning clients: minutes later, the boat’s gone and Susan and Daniel are left adrift.
Their first reactions are more or less predictable: she’s frightened and he’s frustrated, by the boat’s abandonment, his good money wasted, her infective nervousness. As the hours wear on, their reactions and interactions grow increasingly taut and tenuous. Sharks swim by, fins visible. The camera for the most part remains above water, approximating the swimmers’ restricted view. As the ocean stretches incessantly in all directions, the sharks remain hidden, not imbued with malice, but a function of this environment. Desperate for some framework, however meaningless, Susan seeks definition from her partner, his expertise derived from watching Shark Week. She asks, “What kind are they?” Daniel answers, “Big ones.” She asks again, “Are they the bad kind?” He can’t know.
The sharks disappear and reappear, hours go by, the film blacks in and out. Susan and Daniel argue (whose schedule ordained this particular trip, anyway?), contend with hypothermia and dehydration, declare their enduring love, rejoice when she finds some forgotten hard candies in her pack, and deal with the results of her Dramamine wearing off. When he’s struck by a leg cramp, she tries to describe and so contain their status, joking, “We’re really falling apart, aren’t we?” When Daniel’s anger (“Damn those fuckers!”) upsets Susan, he tries to comfort her: “This really sucks, but we’re going to get through this, okay?” It’s too hard to imagine not making it, so the They’re assuming someone will miss them, but the other tourists are shopping and partying, as the camera occasionally cuts to the empty space on the boat where their rented tanks should have been.
While such images may be unsubtle, they do underline that Open Water is mostly about loss — of control, context, and hope. Bobbing in the infinite sea, Susan wonders about the sharks, “I don’t know which is worse, seeing them or not seeing them.” As illustrated in this film’s most effective moments, not seeing leaves open far more possibilities.