Question: What’s so scary about watching two people float around in the ocean for an hour or so?
In theory, a pair of scuba divers accidentally abandoned by their boat sounds like a great idea for a thriller. And writer-director Chris Kentis’s Open Water has received a lot of pre-release attention for its return to a waterworld made famous by a certain ravenous great white shark nearly thirty year ago.
But in practice, Open Water is a water-drenched bore, despite the stranded divers’ encounters with unseen oceanic predators, including sharks, jellyfish and cute little cleaner fish, which have an annoying tendency of nibbling you to death.
Blanchard Ryan and Daniel Travis — two of the blandest, most tedious actors ever to accept a film project — play Susan and Daniel, a couple vacationing in the Bahamas. One morning, they embark on a chartered deep-sea dive, way out in the ocean yonder. But while they’re down below, cavorting in the coral and petting moray eels, the employee on the boat whose SOLE JOB it is to COUNT THE PEOPLE in the boat BEFORE IT DEPARTS for shore, screws up his math, which consists of making a hash mark on a piece of paper for every diver who returns and matching it against the number of divers who initially went down.
Twenty went down. Twenty hash marks. My guess: someone had a little too much hash that morning.
Of course, no one thinks to do a headcount, and nor does anyone notice that the pretty yet nondescript Caucasian couple isn’t in their seats. Off the boat rushes, presumably so everyone can down a few highly priced mango martinis.
Moments later, up pop Susan and Daniel. No boat. Lots of water. And perhaps a shark or two.
At first, Susan and Daniel don’t seem too concerned, figuring that one of the vessels they see on the distant horizon will soon come to retrieve them.
“We’re going to get through this,” chirps Daniel, clearly the eternal optimist of the pair.
When a few hours later they’re still bob, bob, bobbing along, Susan wonders, “Who ever heard of two people getting left in the middle in the ocean?” To which Daniel, an avid reader of diver magazines, quickly responds, “It’s a lot more common than you think!”
If I were Susan, it’s at this precise moment that I’d slice open Daniel’s arm and let the sharks feast away.
As the day wears on, the stressed-out human buoys have brushes with a few sea creatures best left unbrushed against.
Then come the sharks.
“Are they the bad kind?” wonders Susan.
No, Susan, they’re the friendly, talkative kind, like the ones in Finding Nemo.
“I don’t know what’s worse,” she says, “seeing them or not seeing them,” essentially a reworking of a comment she made earlier: “I can’t stand not knowing what’s under me.” And therein lies the biggest problem with Open Water — a malnourished screenplay. Oh, there’s a moment where Susan and Daniel play a verbal blame game — “This is your fault!” “No, it’s your fault!” — but for the most part, the movie is as inert as Kevin Costner’s career. Economically shot on digital video, Open Water is at least visually arresting. Kentis utilizes the ocean horizon to startling effect, crafting several suspenseful moments out of what basically amounts to a lot of splashing. The movie’s tour de force is a harrowing two-minute nighttime sequence, in which only momentary flashes of lightning illuminate the frightened couple.
On the surface, Open Water addresses our primordial fear of the ocean. But on a slightly deeper (but no less obvious) level, it delves into more a more spiritually unnerving question: When exactly does our will to survive evaporate? At what point do we resign ourselves to die?
Kentis resists the urge to stuff his movie with jump-out-of-your-skin scare tactics, though there are one or two well-executed jolts. Open Water produces a mild case of anxiety — there is a specific, ghastly dreadfulness to the situation — but it doesn’t offer much in the way of actual terror. The couple can’t really fall into harm’s way too soon, lest the movie be even shorter than its already brief hour and twenty minutes.
Open Water is, in essence, a stunt — not a bad stunt, but a stunt nonetheless (and it’s a stunt sure to get Kentis a major studio deal). And the movie has been boosted by the fuss made over the fact that the cast and crew were in the actual ocean among real sharks, with boathands keeping the creatures well-fed on chum so that they wouldn’t opt for an entrÃ©e of raw thespian.
If Open Water has a lesson to impart, it’s this: never go scuba diving in a country where the populace is likely to suffer from short-term memory loss.