As a reviewer, it can be very tempting to want in on the ground floor of a phenomenon, to say you were there first when some low-budget feature with a nifty premise made its festival debut, only to be picked up by a big studio and turned into a national phenomenon.
It’s even more tempting to play the contrarian, taking aim at a film that has become the hip thing and calling it irrelevant or silly or perhaps a pale imitation of some obscure foreign film. In the case of Open Water, already being presented as a sensation-to-be, openings for both approaches are ample.
The hype on Open Water is that it’s the Blair Witch version of Jaws and that female star Blanchard Ryan is the Next Big Thing. We’ll deal with Ryan later. But first, about that Blair Witch thing: Yes, it’s low-budget, and yes, the filmmakers (writer-director-editor Chris Kentis and his wife, cinematographer-producer Laura Lau) use more psychological horror than actual gore, playing on the audience’s fear of isolation and using real sharks, which are inherently intimidating. (The sharks are kinda creepy, but do we really need heavy soundtrack “stings” every time one shows up?) And if you thought Blair Witch‘s camerawork was nauseous, you ain’t seen nothing yet. Think hand-held cameras on the ocean, shaky and buoyed by the waves, shot on digital video (but not the good, high-definition kind). Even this critic, who was raised on MTV and loves the immediacy of shoulder-cam footage, felt his stomach turn. If you’re making it dinner and a movie, save the meal for later.
Ryan and Daniel Travis, both of whom have been on Sex and the City and not much else, play a dysfunctional married couple named Susan and Daniel. But none of the exposition matters much — as soon as the flick begins, everyone in the audience is gonna be all, like, “Get to the sharks! We want sharks, damn it!” Then Ryan suddenly gets naked, so you forget about watery predators for a moment. But then we learn that Susan doesn’t want to have sex, and Daniel doesn’t want to just talk while they’re in bed and naked. Mars, Venus. Get to the sharks!
OK, so finally they get out on a scuba cruise. There’s a goofy misunderstanding precipitated by a stereotypical “ugly American” type (Saul Stein) who screws up and then tries to act like everyone else is responsible. Because of his antics, the tour guide (Michael E. Williamson) messes up the head count and sails away without our heroes, leaving them stranded in … open water.
The rest of the story takes place out at sea, as the two bicker, despair, scheme and confront first jellyfish, then sharks. It’s moderately compelling drama but also fairly static stuff, imagewise. In some ways, it’s reminiscent of the English animated feature When the Wind Blows, another tale of a married couple stranded and facing probable doom, though that film’s nuclear bomb is a bit more intimidating (and definitively lethal) than sharks. The passage of the hours is marked by an occasional onscreen time stamp, which is why such time-lapse editing tricks as a montage of different types of flowing H2O feel gratuitous and silly. (The goal may have been to pad out the film’s scant, 79-minute running time.)
And then there are the lead actors. Ryan is getting all the hype, probably because she looks hot. After her character has been out at sea for a day and has pissed and puked on herself, she still looks like a million bucks and her makeup remains flawless. Travis comes across as more like a real-world harried husband, so technically that would make him the better actor. Ryan’s not bad, but there’s nothing in her performance that’s the equal of Heather Donahue’s final close-up in Blair Witch. Of course, Donahue wasn’t a bombshell and therefore hasn’t managed to secure any other leading roles. Ryan will undoubtedly be more fortunate. But deservedly so? No more than a million other aspiring babes.