Judge Bill Gibron will never look at a bowl of shark's fin soup the same way again.
Our review of Open Water / Open Water 2 (Blu-Ray), published October 8th, 2010, is also available.
"Other people go on vacation and spend their days just laying around. We have a story we're going to be telling for the rest of our lives."—Daniel
It is undoubtedly the most primal of the Earth's unexplored territories. It carries a wealth of secrets, treasures both tantalizing and terrifying below its calm blue surface. It can rise up in fury, flood out of anger, and destroy without rhyme, reason, or warning. Yet it can equally soothe and relax like no other region known to man. The ocean is indeed a magical, mysterious place, a fluid-filled negative space where mountains lay upside down and inverted, and where myth and legend have been born and bred.
Because the sea is often viewed in such a sobering, solemn light, very few people consider the mighty force and hidden horror within. From ravenous riptides dragging you to a drowning death, to various sea creatures who prey on the available flesh of faltering humans, there are still more people who would rather find themselves cast adrift on a beautiful ice blue ocean than brave the elements in a hot, humid rainforest. Only problem is, when threatened in the jungle, there is always an available tree to climb, or a rock to use as a weapon. On the sea, all you have is yourself.
Just ask Susan and Daniel, lost and alone, floating in the middle of a vast expanse of sinister saltiness from which there is no escape, no relief. They have been left to fend for and defend themselves. Armed with nothing but a diving knife and their wits, they are about to battle an unseen menace that has for centuries practiced the fine art of eating. In the 2004 Lions Gate release Open Water, we experience firsthand what it's like when man fights nature on its own home turf. And the results are disturbing indeed.
Facts of the Case
A hurried, harried couple—Susan and Daniel—is desperately trying to go on vacation. Both have lives lived in hyperactive motion, filled with chronic cell phone calls and ever-increasing work demands. Hoping to get away from it all, Susan and Daniel take a rapidly planned trip to the Caribbean. Their goal is simple: a little sun, a little surf, and a lot of scuba diving. Getting everything accomplished at the last minute was a chore, but with a charter set for the morning and a day to waste in paradise, they slowly begin to unwind.
The next morning, they're up with the dawn as the lure of the ocean depths comes calling. Surrounded by 20 other water-loving wannabes, the journey to the designated dive spot is a chance to reflect and prepare. Once underwater, the pair let the outside world disappear, communing with the natural elements beneath the sea's surface in an attempt to banish their worries forever.
Completing their submerged exploration of the fathom's many facets, they emerge on the surface to discover a startling sight: The boat has left them behind. There is no sign of land or the launch. Nothing but choppy, churning water for miles around. And just beneath the breakers, below the horizon, deep down in the depths of this vast liquid wasteland, something is circling. They say sharks can sense fear and helplessness. Well, Susan and Daniel are indeed frightened. And there is no one around for hundreds of miles to come to their aid. Just mile upon mile of Open Water. How perfect.
Open Water wants to be the new Jaws, to take Steven Spielberg's classic cat-and-mouse aquatic thriller and bring it back to its anthropomorphic roots. It also wants to celebrate the newfound freedom and creative dexterity in the emerging digital filmmaking format. It so vehemently craves to turn its home movie handcrafting (it was made over two years by a crew of two, with an equally tiny cast) into something special and epic that it only barely succeeds on sheer force of will alone. That it occasionally comes up short, never completely immersing the audience in its "lost at sea" tenets, is not really important. In the wide range of attempts at reinventing genres and instilling innovation into the most tired of cinematic situations, Open Water comes out on top. It is far from a perfect film. But when it gets things right, they are as horrifying as in the best, biggest blockbuster.
Credit must first be given to writer-director Chris Kentis. With his only other professional credit the critically lamentable 1997 blue-collar drama Grind, who could have imagined he had something this potentially landmark in his future. Like The Blair Witch Project or Michael Mann's recent Collateral, Kentis has found a way to mesh the natural ambiance of the real world with the conventions of moviemaking to bring a surreal authenticity to the screen via the newfound novelty of the digital camera. Relying on its portability, as well as its eerie invocation of personal interaction with the subject matter, he is a director who has designed his entire film around the freedom—and the limitation—of this chosen modern medium. And while the results can be far more claustrophobic than sweeping in scope, they flawlessly match the mandates set up by his alone/adrift storyline.
Indeed, the simplistic plot is a fine facet of Open Water's cinematic subversion. The reason for Susan and Daniel's dilemma is not some man- or script-made convolution, some strange set of omens set into motion via fate, character, and individual eccentricity to preordain this couple to peril. It was/is an accident; a basic miscounting of bodies. There is also no heroic last-minute rescue, some nautical knight in shining armor set up to save our distressed divers. Indeed, once they emerge from the water to see themselves isolated and almost totally alone (far-off ships provide a minimal amount of hope that fades the moment their masts disappear across the horizon), there is an inevitability to their destiny that settles in, unnerving and unbalancing the audience. How the narrative then reaches this fatalistic facet is just one of the movie's more astonishing elements.
So are the performances. Unlike Blair Witch, which gave us nothing but whining retards for 80 irritating minutes, Susan and Daniel are allowed the natural progression of fear, anger, and finger-pointing, before finding that unhappy medium of dread mixed with raw, naked frustration. They realize they are supposed to be superior to all this: They are problem solvers in real life, individuals looked to by others as the sources of inspiration or consolidation when something goes array. Now, as single specks in an incredibly vast ocean, they are unable to figure out this problem and it eats them up from the inside out. As embodied by actors Blanchard Ryan and Daniel Travis, the performances here avoid all the obvious yuppie scumminess to delve deep into the apparent open wounds of an equally floundering relationship. In particular, toward the end, there is a scene where each partner blames the other for the predicament, moving from why they are where they are in the ocean to how they ended up by the sea in the first place. The resulting argument, cast in the circumstances they find themselves in, says more about Susan and Daniel as a couple than any long monologue about feelings and/or finality.
Indeed, as long as Kentis keeps us connected to the couple and their disintegrating sense of optimism, Open Water kind of works. Since the director is unable to give us Cast Away-sized depth (no unreal long shots of bobbing bodies lost in a wide blue ocean) or Perfect Storm-style effects (a promised bout of bad weather is brilliantly hinted at, but quickly ignored for obvious budgetary reasons), it is up to the performers to be the glue that keeps us riveted. In combination with some clever trick photography (scenes of sharks just beneath the surface, glimpsed either casually in shadow and quickly with a random lens submersion are fantastic) and an overwhelming notion of bleakness, there are times when Open Water can be a very rough ride. Not quite suspenseful, really, since we are never quite prepared for what will happen, but there are times when we, the audience, superimpose ourselves into the situation and ask that most upsetting of questions—what would I do? The answers, naturally, make up much of Open Water's potential power.
But this is by no means a home run for Kentis and his tiny cast (and crew of one, wife and producer Laura Lau). Indeed, Open Water feels disjointed, cobbled together and caught on the fly, as if the filmmakers knew they had neither the time, the luxury, nor the money to make something more clockwork or concise. There really isn't much of a narrative here, just an event and a couple's confused reaction to it. Kentis isn't out to make a bigger statement with his film, to allow the dissolution of the lovers' relationship play off against the dissolving of all hope. The outside world is a forgotten entity, represented by the occasional passing plane or far-off ship.
Yet it's impossible not to impose some pragmatism into the story, to second-guess some of the convenient non-actions that occur in the film. Her employees back home hound Susan—yet no one thinks to look for her (or her man, for that matter) for more than 24 hours? One assumes the hotel phone would be ringing off the hook. The ship's crew set up a time frame for everyone to be back and accounted for, yet apparently they rely on a first, flawed head count before instantly taking off. No double-checking or a single safety procedural backup. Daniel tells Susan that this type of thing—getting left behind by dive boats—happens all the time; he's read about it in dive magazines (the film is indeed based on such a true life case of a couple in Australia). So this charter company supplies no preventative means of making sure this doesn't happen? Even with all the available, adverse publicity? These are the nagging, unanswerable leaps in logic that Open Water makes. If you can buy into them, you'll have a marvelous time with this movie.
If you can't, it will take a monumental amount of suspended disbelief to get completely lost in this chaos. Kentis is to be applauded for sticking to his pragmatic, realistic resolution (easily the best moment in the entire film), but should also understand that he has not created something superb. Open Water is a flawed film, one realizing that it will have to do more than just get by on its basic, brilliant premise for it to totally shock and satisfy. But since he can't afford more, and really wouldn't know what to do with it if he had it (there is a definite first draft feeling to the occasionally superficial screenplay), Open Water must live or die by its direct, deceiving device.
As an experiment in exigent circumstances over exposition, there is something slightly genius about what Kentis and company have accomplished. But don't buy into the propaganda. There is a lot to like about Open Water, and a great deal to admire as well. But when it comes to thrill and chills on the high seas, you may want to leave the driving to the big-budget blockbuster boys. While it can do most things well, it can't do them all right, and this is what ultimately keeps this intriguing entity from being the balls-to-the-wall horror happening the hyperbole will have you believing.
One does have to admit, though, that this movie looks damn good on DVD. Lions Gate has done an excellent job in preserving the film's arresting 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen image (though a digital transfer would have been preferred—see below). As a director, Kentis has an interesting way with a lens. Sometimes, he films his stranded couple from an up-high, two-shot perspective, as if we are witnessing some friends hanging out by the boat. Other times, he is at water level, letting the lens slightly submerge to show a deep blue infinity (or an occasional sinister shape). The colors are toned down, partly because of the use of natural lighting and also because of the digital-to-feature-film makeover the print received. And most of the underwater footage from the dive is more or less monochromatic. Still, the visual appeal of the movie does stay well within the "you are there" parameters of the production, adding to the overall ambience of the narrative.
Surprisingly, the sound is much better than the visuals on this impressive channel-challenging disc. The Dolby Digital 5.1 EX does allow one to sense that one is drifting along with the couple, as natural noises and occasional atmospheric elements (including a dread drenched creature feature soundtrack) bounce from speaker to speaker. Amazingly, even in the watery setting, dialogue is crystal clear. The razor-sharp flips of the sharks' fins as they break the water are also easily—and eerily—experienced. While there is slightly more sonic superiority in the DTS mix (not enough to warrant a recommendation) and a decent, if often derivative, 2.0 Surround version, this is still an overall stellar auditory offering.
Lions Gate also treats Open Water like a decidedly pampered pet project (having picked up the $150K film at Sundance for a cool $2.5 million), and the studio goes out of its way to promo the puffer fish out of it. We get a featurette on the indie film scene (entitled "The Indie Essentials: A Filmmakers Guide to Gearing Up for a Marketable Movie"—what a mouthful!) which is really nothing more than Lions Gate officials explaining why they love this film so much. The behind-the-scenes documentary—given the equally elongated title of "Calm Before the Storm: The Making of Open Water," is short (15 minutes) but sweet, letting us in on how this movie was conceived, produced, shot, and sold. We get the theatrical trailer (which does a good job of getting across the central terror thesis of the story), some completely unnecessary deleted scenes (they add nothing) and a few feet of footage as director Kentis braves the shark-infested waters to gather some very harrowing images.
Undoubtedly, the best bonus features presented are the two commentaries. One features filmmaker Kentis and his producer-wife-partner Laura Lau. The other offers actors Blanchard Ryan and Daniel Travis. The filmmakers' narrative is incredibly interesting…at first. They discuss all the logistical nightmares, the shots stolen from Manhattan—not sub-tropical skies—and the decision on the ending. Along the way we hear several stories about the hazardous conditions, the problem with continuity and control, and how the filming facets were divided up. Toward the end, however, the couple can't stop fawning over their own work, and they spend far too much time admiring certain elements when they should be really wrapping up the production discussion. In many ways, the actors' alternative track is superior. Far more anecdotal than Kentis and Lau's, and giving us a real insider's view of what is was like to make the movie and be in the water with all those sharks, we get a genuine intimacy and immediacy in this commentary that is missing from the other. Certainly, Ryan and Travis are equally self-serving and free with the praise, but they never once let us forget how much hard work went into making this seemingly simple glorified home feature.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
This may just be a pet peeve being vented here, but why aren't films shot directly onto digital video shown that way on…DVD, otherwise known as digital video. During the outtakes included on the disc, we see the amazing amount of definition, striking visual flair, and bold color scheme that made up much of this production. When digital is transferred over to film, however, most of the detail is washed out, the pigments get muted, and the entire enterprise suddenly starts to stink of its own homemade conceit. If DVD companies are looking for a way to make film enthusiasts happy, they can do away with all the excess publicity-piece frou-frou and provide a digital copy of the film along with the standard "cinematic" version. Something like Open Water was created to feel like an accidental camcorder capture gone horribly wrong. Let us witness the power in that kind of presentation for ourselves.
Hoping to mix the savagery of the sea with the tranquility of nature at its most basic, Open Water tries to be a relationship film set against the backdrop of the cruel fury of the ocean…and all that resides in it. And considering its lofty aims, it is easy to say that it never really manages to meet any of these thematic ideals. The interpersonal problems between the couple are threadbare and underexplored, and the vibrant, volatile view of this wondrous world of water is often marred by some unsure cinematic footing (the night scenes, shot through with lightning, come closest to realizing this ideal). What Open Water does get right is the predatory power in the shark, the utter helplessness of man when pitted against said beast in a battle of life or death. Stripped bare of his most elemental weaponry, and left to fend for him—or her—self, the strategic choices appear to be panic, blame gaming, and fatalistic resolve. There can be no possible way to win against nature on its own territory and terms. Perhaps that is why the sea is so ephemeral. And maybe this is why, for all its mistakes and missteps, Open Water still functions as a fine, if fundamentally flawed, film.
Open Water is found not guilty and is hereby free to go. Filmmakers Chris Kentis and Laura Lau are commended for attempting something new and unique in the rising digital arena of independent filmmaking. They are admonished for not being more bold or brave in their vision, but still, they will not be held over for further charges from the court.
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary Featuring Director Chris Kentis and Producer Laura Lau
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