"Open Water"
Dirs: Kentis and Lau

Patricia Ducey

…where the real sharks play

If you’re worn to a nub by the current political season and want to run screaming into the sea for relief, see Open Water first. Husband and wife team Chris Kentis and Laura Lau’s film will disabuse you of this notion. They produced this haunting, disturbing film with their own money and wrote it after researching real stories of abandoned scuba tourists (not as rare an occurrence as you might hope). They shot it in their spare time with a handheld digital camera using unknown actors, a skeleton crew and, yes, real sharks. I would raise my objection to extreme filmmaking here as to extreme anything, but that’s another story. Long back story short, after its first general audience filming at the Sundance Film Festival and a fierce bidding war, the film was snapped up by Lions Gate Film and the rest is history. It’s a wonderful success fable, but Kentis and Lau deliver a taut and suspenseful 79-minute film, too, one that largely lives up to its hype.

The film opens with a likeable yuppie couple, Susan and Daniel (Blanchard Ryan and Daniel Travis), hurriedly packing for a much-needed vacation. They’re attractive, intelligent career folk. Not quite connecting in their marriage, they still obviously care for each other, but they’re skimming the surface of life. In short, they’re a lot like most of us. Forsaking their buzzing cell phones, impossible deadlines and all the distractions of modern life, they embark on a restorative getaway for two in a tropical paradise. That will fix everything!

Susan and Daniel rise early one morning to join a charter boat expedition with a group of other scuba tourists. The boat drops anchor some 20 miles out to sea, and the boatload of adventurers splash eagerly into the azure sea. Susan and Daniel gambol in the watery wonderland with slithery sea creatures spinning serenely through coral and through the delighted couple’s arms. As the afternoon wears on, the crew pulls returning divers back on board. A crewman botches a hasty headcount, though, and the boat chugs towards shore. When Susan and Daniel surface at what they think is the appointed time, the sea is calm, limitless and starkly empty.

Okay, you think to yourself, how you gonna keep this movie going for another hour?
Suffice it to say that the setups and payoffs and the seat squirming suspense rivals that of the first Alien, my own personal apex of filmic anxiety. But what sets Open Water apart from Jaws or Blair Witch Project, to which it has been I think erroneously compared, is Kentis’ story. Big mainstream films tell stories set in Filmlandia, that filmic realm where Tom Cruise and Angelina Jolie have big epiphanies and learn hard lessons, too often repeating dialogue verbatim from other Filmlandia stories when they speak at all. Susan and Daniel, on the other hand, are exemplars of ordinariness; they’re the kind of people you’d have a drink with on vacation and eventually forget. They didn’t do anything to deserve their predicament; no fatal flaw, monster from the deep blue sea, or spook from the netherworld hounds them to hell and back. Nature itself proves the incredibly beautiful and cruelly exacting antagonist. Out in the middle of the ocean, stripped of the accoutrements of human existence, they confront the essential struggle between life and death that lies just beneath the surface of our own lives. Sport, business, and even the well-mannered savagery of our present political campaigns: all of these human endeavors are but poor metaphors for our war against the inevitable. Open Water lays it on the line. Thus, even though the film focuses on the physical world, I find Open Water a deeply human film. If we know the inevitability of the outcome, why do we strain against it so? The question I left Open Water with is not “what would I do?” but “who am I?”

-- Patricia Ducey

Copyright Web del Sol, 2004

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