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Director: Chris Kentis
Cast: Daniel Travis, Blanchard Ryan
he reason movies seldom frighten people¾really frighten them¾is that there are only so many ways to manipulate an audience. How many carefully orchestrated “jumps,” twist endings and ritualistic slashings can we be expected to sit through before wanting to execute some stylized gore of our own? Despite its considerable weaknesses, M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village can be read as a fascinating indictment of the prevailing high-tech dog and pony show that results in a moviegoer getting “scared.”
Open Water stirs fear on a different level (“primal” is the word most critics have chosen), namely the fear of being stranded in a dangerous environment that is not so much malicious as it is entirely indifferent to the survival of humans. A shark doesn’t sit around, planning with perverse glee the desire to separate a human limb from its torso. It just eats and goes about its business. Likewise, a storm will rage at sea whether or not anyone is stranded in it. For modern humans, the scary thing about wilderness is its lack of either malevolence or pity.
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This is all obvious, but it’s not the sort of thing we think about, since the majority of us never will unwillingly become estranged from civilization long enough to feel threatened by that isolation.
While films exploring this theme aren’t exactly rare, few have managed to effectively strip the man/beast conflict to its most basic elements, which is why Open Water is nearly able to transcend its storytelling gimmick. A sensation all over the festival circuit, the film, as you probably know, is about a pair of scuba-diving tourists left behind by their boat somewhere in the ocean. The couple, played by Blanchard Ryan and Daniel Travis, returns to the surface to find a horizon populated only by distant boats and the occasional dorsal fin. As the reality of their situation becomes clear, they go through the four textbook stages of grief: 1) denial, 2) passing time with Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, 3) engaging in shrill arguments and 4) acceptance…and getting stung by jellyfish.
Open Water was filmed digitally and shot mostly at water level. Calling it amateur or low-budget would be an insult to America’s fine producers of video pornography. Indeed, the first 20 minutes¾consisting of incidental character development, dreadful dialogue and haphazard editing¾is a lot like porn. Except porn has considerably more fucking.
A movie like Open Water can only be judged on the extent to which it capitalizes on its concept. To that end, writer/director/producer Chris Kentis doesn’t bother making his characters objects of sympathy or, for that matter, anything other than placeholders. Which is fine, since personality-deficient yuppie douche bags are tragically underrepresented as film protagonists.
So they float and yammer, and for a long time not much happens. But the last 10 minutes of “Open Water” are so jarring and well-executed that you’ll feel terrible for checking your watch during the preceding 80. It’s the sort of conclusion reviewers have to discuss circuitously, reinforcing my theory that there’s a union conspiracy afoot requiring a certain number of filmmakers to devise shocker endings merely to subvert attempts at legitimate criticism. (Slate’s David Edelstein writes some of his reviews in two installments: one to be read before seeing a movie, one to be read after, and I suspect more Internet critics will start doing the same).
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I’m not going to give away the ending (but, really, what the hell do you think happens?). Sure, it drives home the reality of the divers’ situation, but it ultimately raises serious questions about what purpose Open Water serves. Is it scary? Somewhat, but generally the film is more frightening in theory. Is it educational? Perhaps, but I knew not to drink salt water in the first place. Is it fatalistic? Boy, howdy.
Regardless, Open Water is worth a viewing¾depending on the fortitude of your stomach¾simply because few filmmakers have the guts (or the buckets of chum) to see a project like this through. Parallels to The Blair Witch Project are obvious, mainly because of budget and format, but also because Open Water convinced me not to scuba-dive, in the same way Blair Witch convinced me not to venture into forests that I suspect contain witches. When Blair Witch came out, I had the misfortune of seeing it during the swarm of publicity that surrounded its release, which certainly diminished what otherwise would have been a good fright. Open Water might be the first wide-release film since to employ the same structure, and it has more or less the same effect, which is to say it lives up to some, but not all, of the hype. But at least we know there won’t be a sequel.
By: Troy Reimink
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