Sunday, October 25, 2015

Open Water

The sea. Even today, with all our advances in technology and increased knowledge about how the world works, the ocean can still instill in us a vast, overwhelming sense of awe and terror. Why? There's still so much more about it to discover, and against the mass of the ocean and compared to some of the creatures that live in it, human beings are small and vulnerable. When we enter the ocean, we enter a world we can't control.

And that's what is so good about Open Water (2003); it understands this relationship with the ocean and exploits it. Based on a true story (of course, it is, but that's better than the plot of Open Water 2, which is based off an episode of King of the Hill), Open Water is about a couple, Susan (Blanchard Ryan) and Daniel (Daniel Travis), on a vacation in the Caribbean. They go out scuba diving and accidentally get left behind by their tour boat. Left alone in open sea, they must contend with the elements and sharks.

Writer/director Chris Kentis does not load the picture with artificial episodes of action or suspense. If anything, he strips away artifice and convention, making the movie a character study about two people who must confront the inevitable: if they aren't rescued soon, they will die because there is nothing they can do. Yes, there are some hungry sharks, but this isn't Jaws. There are no thrilling scenes of Susan and Daniel heroically fighting the creatures off. Sometimes they see sharks, sometimes the sharks get too close for comfort, sometimes the sharks try to take a bite. They're animals checking weakened, possible prey, not mythical monsters that swallow men whole.

Much of the film consists of Daniel and Susan floating in the water, occasionally putting on their masks to look beneath the waves, and talking. They're scared, out of their element, and prone to panicking or arguing. Sometimes Susan is hysterical, and Daniel tries to calm her down. Other times, Daniel begins ranting and lashing out at the situation, and Susan has to be the reasonable one.

The movie opens by emphasizing their (and by extensions, our) dependency on technology and other people. Kentis shows us shots of their cellphones, they complain about their air conditioner in their hotel room being broken, they go out to eat at a restaurant, and they take a plane and boat ride. As a species, humans are survivors, intelligent enough to control their environment and hunt animals, but individuals humans are weak, slow, and easy pickings without weapons, tools, or other people around.

Filmed on a low budget, Open Water makes up for its lack of funds with a sense of authenticity. Susan and Daniel are really out in the ocean, bobbing up and down, and Kentis keeps his camera close to them, having it rock and up down with them so the viewer feels right there with them. Occasionally, he gives us a long shot of the pair, specks in the vast ocean, highlighting how cut off and vulnerable they are. There's even quality underwater footage that shows us different fish and sharks against the backdrop of vast, dark blue. Also, they apparently used real sharks. The only stylistic misstep comes when a storm hits near the end; the way that scene plays out makes the storm feel more like a dramatic contrivance than an obstacle of nature.

Open Water is not Jaws. It's not very fun, and it's a bleak, nihilistic movie. It defies traditional dramatic structure and payoffs and avoids movie heroics and thrills. Open Water is not for everyone because it's ultimately an uncomfortable movie to watch, but it is an effective, uncompromising movie.

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