OPEN WATER Movie Review
How's this for a math problem? A couple goes on a scuba-diving excursion on a boat filled with 18 other enthusiastic divers and a small crew. A crew member is responsible for ticking off on his clipboard divers who have returned from their dive.
One diver forgets his mask and remains on board. One tick. Another diver has trouble equalizing and returns early. Her partner comes along. Two more ticks makes three. The first diver asks if he can borrow a mask, but the crew member won't let him dive without a buddy, so the first and third divers go back in the water.
Here's the problem. The crew member has three ticks on his sheet, and only one diver remains in the boat. As the divers come back up, one by one, the ticks increase until 18 people are on the boat and 20 ticks are on the sheet.
This leaves Susan (Blanchard Ryan) and Daniel (Daniel Travis) still in the water as the boat pulls away.
That's the simple premise of Chris Kentis' "Open Water," a debut feature shot on digital video for about $130,000. Like The Blair Witch Project," it's a homemade horror film with more tense thrills than any recent Hollywood picture.
Kentis, who made the film with producer/co-cinematographer Laura Lau, begins the film with a talky, uninteresting set-up detailing the marriage and relationship between Susan and Daniel. Like almost everyone else, they work too hard, watch too much television and have too much stress. They argue over whether to take a computer on their trip and whether to check their e-mail.
Once in the water, their relationship goes through stages. At first they make the best of it, playing little games and making jokes. Then Daniel plays the strong, supporting husband, before he finally loses it, shouting "unbelievable!" toward the heavens. Then none of it matters anymore as sharks begin to appear.
In the summer of 1975, Steven Spielberg scared most of the free world with "Jaws," which is still a great film -- but it has nothing on this thing, which features up-close underwater photography of a school of sharks brushing up against our hapless divers' legs.
Kentis and Lau do a remarkable job of varying the relentless floating-in-the-ocean photography, providing suspense through innovative setups and cutting. They also use the meanwhile-back-on-land footage sparingly, and only when necessary. The result cuts to the bone.
If this were a Hollywood movie -- "Dead Calm," for example -- we could pretty much count on a happy ending. But as a homemade indie, we in the audience know that "Open Water" could really go either way. That's a huge factor in the film's success. While Hollywood films automatically toss us a life preserver, this time we feel as if we're floating out there with Daniel and Susan.
Despite its effectiveness as a truly frightening film, the real terror of "Open Water" comes from listening to Daniel as he tries to remember all the facts he learned about sharks from the Nature Channel. As sophisticated as we think we are, we're all just two ticks away from being shark bait.