`Open Water': Horror on the high seas

August 06, 2004|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Open Water stands as the year's most unsettling movie experience - and in this case, that's a very good thing.

Shot in close-up documentary style by the husband-and-wife team of Chris Kentis and Laura Lau (who also produced), it plays relentlessly on one of mankind's most primal fears, leaving the viewer both exhausted and petrified, not to mention glad to be alive and able to safely exit the theater.

The plot is simplicity itself: A young couple on a scuba-diving vacation are accidentally left behind when the boat heads for shore. Alone in open water, miles from land, with no means of rescue in sight, they're left to fend for themselves amid mounting despair, growing physical discomfort and swarming sharks.

Shot in the waters surrounding Bermuda, with real sharks circling the actors, Open Water looks like it was put together by a 6 o'clock news crew, so real and unpolished does it feel. (The movie is based on an actual incident, one that could have serious implications for the water-based tourist trade.)

Even in the beginning, as the couple prepare for the trip, everything is shot close-up, with handheld cameras. The technique makes the viewer feel claustrophobic from the start, a mindset that will reap serious dividends later in the movie.

Kentis tries to provide some shading for the characters by establishing them as a power couple whose lives are defined way too much by their work. No sooner are they out the door of their home than the cell phones start ringing, as careers and co-workers and commitments try to keep them from going away. But Susan and Daniel (newcomers Blanchard Ryan and Daniel Travis) are determined, hoping this vacation will preserve both their sanity and their marriage.

Boy, are they gonna wish they'd let the phone calls keep coming!

The couple's back story is successful in fits and starts; one does get a feeling for who they are, and sympathy for them increases with the realization of how desperate their need was to get away. Giving them a marriage in the initial stages of failing makes their forced togetherness later in the movie, once the boat leaves, even more poignant.

There's also a suggestion that people organize their lives rigidly at their own peril; nature, the film hammers home, is not an orderly system, but a series of random events. True enough, but that subtext is beyond what this modest little film can accomplish. Besides, it's not like Susan and Daniel did anything to put themselves in harm's way or make themselves complicit in their fate.

Once they hit the water, though, all bets are called; as the couple's gloom deepens and their plight becomes more desperate, the audience's discomfort grows. To a degree matched by few other films, Open Water preys on the stuff of nightmares - being left alone in the middle of the vast ocean. It lets us ponder what that would be like. And it wouldn't be pretty.

Open Water

Starring Blanchard Ryan, Daniel Travis

Written and directed by Chris Kentis

Released by Lions Gate Films

Rated R (language, some nudity)

Time 79 minutes

Sun Score ***

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