Open Water (2003) Movie Review

(Movie Review by Bill Paterson) A fish tale of a movie like “Open Water” is bound to be gutted by some. Opinions vary widely among both critics and audiences on whether “Open Water” is a watershed or waterlogged. We’ll get back to my thoughts on that in a moment. For now, let me just say that I will not step foot in so much as a kiddie pool without a cell phone and a stun gun ever again.

It seems to me that when you cut open this particular shark flick, you’ve got to take a good look inside its unique belly — and what you’ll find is the handheld digital shooting technique employed by writer/director/editor Chris Kentis. No crew, no special effects, and no computer manipulation.

In terms of its significance to moviemaking, the film opens the floodgates for other low-budget films to be produced in the same cost-effective manner. Here again, there will be diverging schools of thought. Some will say boo-yah! — this breakthrough may yield the next Spielberg now that the multi-million dollar film production landscape has been leveled. Others will be less than enamored with the notion that now any assclown with a video camera can start making features about his third grade birthday party.

Even though I’m a registered cynic, I’m with the first school. Still, I caution all prospective auteurs to use the technology wisely. Digital shooting lends itself well to this intimate study of two people in peril after their scuba boat leaves them stranded in the Caribbean ocean. The voyeuristic feel adds to the inherent tension in this particular story. However, the limitations of digital are glaring in the opening sequence, while the happy couple is still at home. As a result, the director has to bend over backwards to get angles that mask the home video production value. It is only when he hits the camera-friendly beaches and ocean that digital begins to work for him. Films lacking such grand scenery and the need for intimacy may not fare as well.

Varying accounts of the film’s budget are floating around out there, but most estimates seem to tag “Open Water” at about $150,000 — or roughly what Sean Penn spends on cigarettes in one movie. In my book, pulling off a movie this taut and compelling for that kind of cash is extraordinary.

Oh yeah, the story itself.

Susan and Daniel (Blanchard Ryan and Daniel Travis) are a couple looking to get away from it all — a request their travel agent may have taken a bit too far. As everyone knows by now, their boat abandons them. Things move slowly for a half hour or so leading up to the fateful moment. Sure, some complain that Kentis should have cut to the chase sooner, but if he had left them deserted in the ocean in the first ten minutes, there would be no emotional investment by the audience in the fate of the characters.

Even still, I expected a little more terror and a little less talkiness once the couple found themselves in their predicament. But the more I thought about it, the more their reactions seemed natural. Their emotions run the gamut: hopeful that someone will come back, terrified that they’ll become shark bait, angry at the boat driver, frustrated with each other, and scared that they won’t make it through the night. I’ve never faced the prospect of a shark nipping at my nads, but that sounds about right to me.

For a few minutes, I couldn’t help but think that maybe the two snippy yuppies deserved what they were getting. But that quickly passed, as I entered “I wouldn’t wish this on my worst enemy territory” (not even Andy Dick). And once they stopped annoying me, I actually began to like both characters. So Kentis got what he wanted — I was right there with them in the water.

Now, I won’t give away the ending as some reviewers no doubt will (that’s the kind of thing middle-aged geeks who live with their moms tend to do), but I’ll tell you that it rocked me. So much so that I’m giving the film another full star because of it. I recommend this film for a ton of reasons. Not the least of which is the fact that we may look back on “Open Water” as one of the films that took digital shooting from amateur-hour to the big-time.

Chris Kentis (director) / Chris Kentis (screenplay)
CAST: Blanchard Ryan …. Susan
Daniel Travis …. Daniel
Saul Stein …. Seth
Estelle Lau …. Estelle

Buy Open Water on DVD