Open Water
Open Water

USA, 2004. Rated R. 79 minutes.

Cast: Blanchard Ryan, Daniel Travis, Saul Stein
Writer: Chris Kentis
Cinematography: Chris Kentis & Laura Lau
Producer: Laura Lau
Director: Chris Kentis


Grade: A- Review by Warren Curry

Open Water , the second feature film from husband and wife filmmaking team Chris Kentis and Laura Lau, has already generated quite a buzz due in large part to various stories pertaining to the movie's production. The low-budget, digital video project, set predominantly in an unspecified ocean area, was shot on location twenty-five miles off the coast of the Bahamas, with both the actors and crew dangerously mingling with approximately fifty sharks. No, the sharks you see circling the actors in some of the movie's most unbearably tense scenes aren't CGI creations. While it was a given that the film would boast impressive novelty value, could the finished product really be as entertaining as the tales surrounding the making of the movie? After nearly jabbing myself in the eye with my pen a half dozen times, I realized Open Water is the most chillingly suspenseful film I've seen in the last decade.

Inspired by true events, although not based on any particular real life story, Open Water is everything The Blair Witch Project (which, along with Jaws, is what this movie will be most frequently compared to) should've been—a film whose execution matches its clever concept. Walking the line between horror and thriller, writer/director Kentis takes a taut, simple story and deftly uses his limitations to the movie's overwhelming advantage. Running a trim 79 minutes, and making every one of them count, the director exploits every element at his disposal—the ocean, the natural light, and of course, the sharks—to maximum effect. The biggest key to Open Water 's success is the filmmakers' awareness that, in this case, less equals substantially more.

An attractive upper middle class couple who desperately need a respite from their lives' frenzied routine, Susan (Blanchard Ryan) and Daniel (Daniel Travis), escape together on a tropical vacation. Things begin as planned with the couple lying out on the beach and getting a night's rest, before they embark on a morning scuba diving trip on a boat filled with other visitors. Susan and Daniel, certified scuba divers, zip up their wet suits, listen inattentively to a few basic instructions and warnings (the divers will probably see sharks, but not of the aggressive variety) from the boat's crew, and go on their way to explore the area's bustling ocean life.

Daniel Travis and Blanchard Ryan
Daniel Travis and Blanchard Ryan get ready to dive into Open Water.

Forty minutes later, Susan and Daniel emerge from the ocean depths, but their boat has vanished. Due to an oversight on the part of the ship's crew (hope they're prepared for a lawsuit!), the couple was mistakenly accounted for when the other divers returned to the boat. Remaining calm, they are optimistic that their boat will soon recognize the mistake and return to rescue them, but as the day stretches longer, the two grow cold and fatigued. When the ocean current pulls them miles away from their original location, the sharks they had been warned about become omnipresent. Unfortunately, these sharks don't appear to be of the passive variety.

The film manages to overcome the restraints of its digital video picture by placing the camera right in the middle of the action. Producer and director of photography Laura Lau, in addition to going deep into the ocean to capture footage of some amazing creatures, often places the camera on the water's surface, bobbing up and down with the physically strained actors. Very subtle and judiciously placed music cues greatly increase the tension level, which hits an exhilarating peak during a night scene when the ocean, the actors, and the sharks are lit by sharp flashes of lightning accompanied by violent claps of thunder. This is when I decided to drop my pen on the floor for fear of losing my aforementioned eye.

Aside from the thrills—achieved completely without the use special effects—the script's story beats hit their marks effectively. Susan and Daniel's behavior is eminently believable. Their shared misfortune gives way to petty bickering, which dissipates when it becomes evident that the couple will need to rely on each other more than ever before. In a day and age when thrillers commonly lack characters you can truly invest in, it's refreshingly easy to empathize with Susan and Daniel's grief. Since you spend the entire film with the two lead characters, their interaction is crucial to the movie's success. On a few occasions, the dialogue slightly overwhelms the actors (which may be attributable to the physical duress they performed under), but Blanchard Ryan and Daniel Travis, who wore protective chain mail underneath their wet suits to prevent shark bites, bring a natural vulnerability to these people. Far from just disposable shark bait, it's amazing how much you begin to identify with Susan and Daniel's plight as the film progresses.

The limitations of digital video are exposed in the movie's crude wide shots, but the format serves the abundance of intimate moments well. Shooting on film may have lessened the movie's immediacy, creating a more sterile environment that would've neutralized Open Water's primal impact. Even with its brief running time, Kentis, who also edited the picture, paces the film superbly and builds the anticipation level to a deliciously excruciating level. As all good filmmakers who work in this genre know, what doesn't happen is every bit as important as what does.

I was desperately gripping my chair during the last half hour of this film, and agony never felt so good. Open Water has accomplished the most impressive movie feat of 2004 thus far—the film actually exceeds the pre-release hype. And even as we sweat through the hottest days of summer here in Los Angeles, I'll be keeping a healthy distance from the ocean for a long time to come.

Review © August 2004 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © 2004 Lions Gate Films. All Rights Reserved.

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