Open Water Review
Made on weekends and holidays by a husband and wife director/producer team for $130,000 and, at the time of writing, pushing a gross of $30m in the US alone, ‘Open Water’ is arguably the year’s biggest little film. Writer/director Chris Kentis has taken the true story of the disappearance of a couple off the Great Barrier Reef in 1998 and fashioned it into an effective low-budget thriller that doesn’t quite live up to its ‘Blair Witch’ hype.
Good looking, overworked 30-somethings Susan and Daniel leave their comfy home for a well-earned break in an island resort. After sampling the delights of the local town and eating some quality seafood they decide, being avid scuba divers, that it’s time for a dip. Booking themselves into an ocean reef tour, they enjoy a 40 minute dive among the friendly fish, only to discover when they surface that their boat has left. Unbeknownst to them, the boat’s crew have counted the divers back into the boat incorrectly and returned to shore unaware they’re missing. At first the couple calmly tread water, confident that the boat will return to pick them up. Then Daniel notices a fin moving slowly towards them…
‘Open Water’ is a demonstration of how powerful a single idea can be when it’s delivered in the right way. When I explained the concept to friends, saying ‘It’s about a couple of scuba divers who get accidentally left in the middle of the ocean and are attacked by sharks,’ they looked distinctly unimpressed, often wondering aloud if that was all the movie consisted of. As an experiment, I tried explaining the idea to different friends, changing it slightly: ‘It’s about a couple who go scuba diving. The guy keeping count of the divers makes a mistake and counts them as having come back onboard when they hadn’t. They get left in the middle of the ocean and are attacked by sharks.’ This description provoked a far more intense reaction, even making one mate exclaim: ‘Oh my God!’ and cover his face with his hands in horror (admittedly my shark imitation may have also played a part here). The point is that this little detail gives even a brief summation of the film a disturbing authenticity. It triggers the primal fear of abandonment that lurks within us all. When you add in the far more visceral terror of sharks common to just about every movie-goer since Steven Spielberg first dragged Bruce onto the screen in 1975, it's little wonder that audiences have been flocking to see 'Open Water'.
Having said that, I have to admit to being a bit underwhelmed by this film. There’s no doubt that it represents a triumph of indie film-making, in that it’s a defiantly low-budget production that makes up for its lack of money with energy and ingenuity (apart from the sound department, the film’s entire crew consisted of Kentis and his wife Laura Lau) so I applaud its success. But, while the film is competently made, it has a rather stilted quality that I found isolating. The inexperience of the cast is quite apparent in some of the scenes and the basic nature of the screenplay smacks of a ‘Creative Writing for the Screen’ course. The quality of the photography obviously suffers from the extremely restricted budget (it was shot on DV and printed on 35mm). As a result, I never felt really drawn into the story and so could never identify deeply with the characters. This might also be due to the fact that I found them so annoying: with their SUV, laptops and double lattes, Daniel and Susan are exactly the kind of smug, energy-guzzling American couple I want to see devoured by sharks. Having said that, the friend I went to the cinema with found the film absolutely terrifying, so maybe it’s just me.
There were, however, a couple of elements of ‘Deep Water’ that I thought were just plain unlikely, and here I should announce a spoiler warning as I need to discuss some elements of the film’s plot in depth. For a film that ostensibly prides itself on its realism, it does seem rather unlikely that after the first attack on Daniel, when a chunk is torn out of his thigh causing copious bleeding, that there isn’t a subsequent attack on Susan. Apparently the more recent research on sharks indicates that they are likely to initiate a single massive attack on a human-sized victim and then let him or her bleed to death; since there were several sharks present and one of them had already executed this manoeuvre on one of the divers, it seems likely they’d attack the other too. The film asks us to believe that Susan would survive the entire night and morning unmolested while Daniel bled steadily beside her. Kentis is an avid diver so definitely knows more about shark behaviour than I do, but this still felt like a rather contrived device to allow Susan her own, self-willed, demise – conducted just as the rescue boats and helicopters are racing towards her – thus giving the film’s climax both added tension and a haunting final image. Also, more obviously, neither Daniel or Susan attempt to shout at either of the boats that are clearly visible when they first surface, which I would have thought would have been the obvious thing to do. OK, let spoiling cease .
Like ‘The Blair Witch Project, ‘Open Water’ is a low-budget success story, created by a largely non-professional cast and crew pumping in their own time and money. But whereas the shaky, handheld look and hysterical performances of ‘Blair Witch’ could be excused by its own conceit – this was supposed to be ‘found footage’ of a bunch of kids being tormented by a supernatural force, after all – the shortcomings of ‘Open Water’ are harder to rationalise. I wouldn’t normally open a film review discussing a movie’s financial performance or its means of production, and the fact I did so here is indicative of the fact that I really want to make clear how much of a labour of love the film is and how much kudos the film-makers deserve for having created it. I mean, two of the most basic rules of film-making are: 'Don't film on the water' and 'Don't film with live animals' and Kentis, in his second film, tackles both of these head on (which is why I give the film a higher mark than its constituent parts may seem to warrant)! But every thriller, regardless of budget, has to exert enough of a spell on the audience to make them forget the space between themselves and the screen and become completely absorbed in the action. For me, ‘Open Water’ didn’t quite make the grade.