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Open Water
Rated: R :: Released: 06 August 2004
Director: Chris Kentis :: Starring: Blanchard Ryan and Daniel Travis

By Michael David Sims
09 August 2004 — Open Water is not for you if you're looking for a shark movie. Unlike Jaws, which it's being unfairly compared to, no one is viciously yanked under and chomped to bits in bloody gore — their limbs washing ashore to frighten away tourists and locals alike. No — that is not Open Water. Not in the slightest. If you're looking for pools of blood and floating limbs, rent Jaws or the pale imitation Deep Blue Sea. If, however, you're looking for primal, psychological terror and a film about a relationship, then Open Water might be right up your alley.

First and foremost, Open Water is about Susan (Blanchard Ryan) and Daniel (Daniel Travis) and their strained relationship. Yeah, they're in love — that's evident from the get-go — but their hectic jobs and upper-middleclass / SUV-lifestyle has taken its toll on their relationship. Susan sighs as she attempts to breakaway from a last minute, business-related phone call before jetting off to their tropical paradise, while Daniel waits impatiently in the car. And though the opening dialog is a little forced (and the digital video, used over 35mm, is a bit of a shock), we understand that this vacation is much needed — more so for Susan, one suspects.

Once on the island, they shop and sightsee, laugh and walk — generally enjoying themselves and each other. In this faraway land, they can forget about work and bills and war and politics and every other little thing that preys on their lives. After all, this is a vacation: a time to savor every moment, making the mundane tolerable for another year — until the next vacation. In a few short minutes, we've watched them grow together and recognize their love. Unlike other films, which simply tell you Character A loves Character B, Open Water — a film you think is about sharks — takes its sweet time to show you they're in love.

What makes their relationship ring so true is the bedroom scene. Susan lays nude in bed, reading, as Daniel (also nude) climbs in. They snuggle and kiss and he attempts to make love to her, but she's not really in the mood. Try as he might to arouse her, she definitely isn't in the mood — and rolls over.

Now, when I saw the film, the theater was filled with young couples — most no older than their late teens — and the men groaned when they realized they weren't going to get a hot sex scene — which are synonymous with horror films. (But as I said before, this isn't that kind of horror movie. It isn't about the sex and blood.) The reason I mention the youthfulness of the crowd is because (chances are) they haven't been in long-term relationships yet. Even with a year or two under their collective belts, they're still learning each other's quirks and personalities. Only with age and longer relationships will these viewers be able to appreciate the subtlety of the bedroom scene. (And ending.)

But I digress — for now.

A funny little bit of foreshadowing comes moments later when the couple is awoken by a mosquito. One which circles Daniel until he's able to swat it with a magazine, allowing he and Susan to once again rest comfortably. Unlike the coyotes in Collateral (which I'm still trying to wrap my brain around), Chris Kentis' (writer / director) intent is clear.

So I've written seven paragraphs, and have made little mention of their fate in the ocean. Quite frankly, the reason for this is because the film took its time getting there. (A rather gutsy move for a film that's only 79 minutes long.) Sure, from a writer's standpoint, it would have been an interesting experiment to see what would have transpired if the story / film started with Susan and Daniel surfacing from their dive, only to find they've been left behind. Then, as the remainder of the film rolled by, their relationship could have unfolded. (Which is what I'm sure most people wanted / expected — and vicious sharks.) But then we wouldn't have cared about them as people, as a couple. We wouldn't have gritted our teeth as the boat motored-up and pulled away. Or felt her initial horror and his disbelief. Their bickering over which distant boat might be theirs and if they should swim towards one would have meant nothing. Like Ang Lee's Hulk, Open Water sets its own pace, building character before anything really happens.

Unlike Hulk, however, nothing happens in Open Water. Nothing that's going to grab the average moviegoer and jolt him into interest. No. They float there and float there and float there — and float there. And they talk and argue and point fingers and don't talk — and talk. They pee and vomit — and pee. That's it. Well, and sharks begin to circle and poke, causing the couple to gently swim away and regain their wits. Just so they can wait some more. But that's it.

Eventually, one (and I won't say who) does get bitten. But unlike what Jaws would have you believe, it isn't a limb-removing affair. (Then again, the shark in Jaws is a great white, whereas these are much smaller.) It isn't a big bite — more of a nibble — but a bite nonetheless. And when the blood flows and puddles around them, sharks don't suddenly swarm and gobble them up. They're surprisingly left alone, drifting wherever the current flows.

As night turns to day and a storm rolls in, the island city continues to dance and breathe its colorfully vibrant breath without them — never noting they're missing. And if the film has one flaw (for me anyway), it's the lackadaisicalness of the crew. While the film does an excellent job explaining how two people could be forgotten (through two people handling the headcount), it doesn't bother to note why there isn't another headcount once on shore. Or why the crew doesn't inventory their SCUBA gear until the next morning. Or how it is no one notices the missing couple. Or how their mesh bags are overlooked. In this regard, there's a gaping plot hole, but not one large enough to ruin the film.

It's during the storm (hours before they're discovered missing) when we understand how primal our fears our. The theater is cast in darkness as lightning sparks the sky, revealing split-second visions of swarming sharks. Thunder rolls and crashes as the lightning fades away, once again casting us in darkness — leaving us alone with nothing but our ingrained and childhood fears of hungry, sharp-toothed monsters lurking in the unknown. In this case, however, we are given glimpses into the unknown and can clearly see the hungry, sharp-toothed monsters. There isn’t the now-classic Jaws cello to rattle around in our brain and pound our hearts. It's nothing but thunder and lightening and unwanted peeks into the abyss. Real fear. Not the fabricated Hollywood kind. It's here that Open Water excels — that is, if you understand that this isn't a shark movie, but a film that pries into our collective fears and bubbles them to the surface.

It's also during the nighttime storm that we realize the true nature of their relationship — of any loving relationship. Despite all their bickering and finger pointing, they huddle together for protection — for survival. At this point, after hours of floating, it doesn't matter who might have spent a little too much time petting en eel or who wanted to go skiing instead. All that matters is surviving and protecting those who can't protect themselves. We're given a 79-minute glance into a 24-hour slice of one couple's relationship, and should come away seeing many traits reflected in our own — good and bad. There's a little bit of Susan and Daniel in each one of us, even if we're not the SUV-driving, upper-middleclass, SCUBA diving sort. What they do or who they are doesn't matter. Ultimately, it's how they relate to one another — and what we take away from it — that counts. Not the sharks.

Stars: 4 of 5


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