In the age of computer-generated special effects and surgically enhanced movie stars, the best way, it seems, to unsettle the hell out of an audience is to go ordinary. Way ordinary: Flat, semi-verité, never-seen-these-actors-before-and-probably-never-will-again ordinary. Blair Witch Project ordinary, only even more ordinary. Take the opening of Open Water (Lions Gate Films), which is written, shot, and acted about as resourcefully as the linking scenes on America’s Most Wanted. This is not to say that it is bad writing, shooting, or acting: It would need to be more ambitious to be bad. It is simply the most mundane sort of behavior presented in the most mundane sort of way. A title appears over a shot of the tide rolling in: “Based on true events.” A husband and wife, attractive enough but hardly heart-stopping by movie-actor standards, leave for a tropical island vacation, the blond wife barely finishing her work in time, their exchanges meant to make us think that it could be us up there: hectic schedule, last-minute trip, inability to relax. … Have to check the e-mail: Glad the resort has wi-fi. Too bad the air-conditioning in the room is on the blink. The wife thinks maybe she wants sex but then maybe sort of doesn’t: How about tomorrow night? What a pain getting up at 6:30 a.m. to go out on a boat, but hey, this is a vacation, a chance to do something instead of lying around. Let’s go scuba diving.
The trip out to open water is as uneventful as you could hope for, except for the asshole who forgot his mask and pointedly sulks. He has a lot more life in him than the two leads, anyway: As they sit staring out into space, they look like extras. The charter employees recite their standard speeches, including the one about sharks: Yeah, you might see one, but if you don’t want to just close your eyes. Then it’s everybody into the water: Splash splash, the splashes shot from way down where it’s dark and quiet, the first non-mundane moment in Open Water. Wriggling bodies, flailing limbs. A title flashes: “9:45 a.m.”
Much of the film, written and directed by Chris Kentis, consists of the main characters, Susan (Blanchard Ryan) and Daniel (Daniel Travis), bobbing up and down in the water, with nothing to hold onto, the camera at their level, waiting for the boat to return. For a while they have no idea if they came up in the wrong spot: How could the people running the island scuba business—so professional, exacting, and safety-conscious—not realize that two people were still down at the reef? They joke about her mother, about Shark Week on cable. “Honey, I hate to tell you this, but swim or not, we go where the current decides.” “Did you just pee?” “You said you were a little cold.” “Daniel, was that a shark?” “That’s all we need right now.” And so on.
It’s interesting to get closer to these previously unexciting actors as their situation gets worse: They’re actually very good. First, Daniel consoles Susan and holds her when her Dramamine wears off and she begins to feel sicker and sicker from the up-and-down motion. Then, inevitably, they fight: Was it his fault for staying down too long? Her fault for forcing him to reschedule the vacation because of her work? Stinging jellyfish and nibbling little fish don’t help. Then there are a few more shark tails. “Unbelievable! We paid to do this!” Silence. Waiting. Silence. Waiting. Silence. Waiting. Shots of their bodies from below are accompanied by minor-key a cappella island spirituals.
There isn’t much more to say without giving away the end of the movie, so I guess it’s time to use this here Internet medium for another two-tier review. (My last one was for Before Sunset.) If Open Water sounds like your kind of movie and you don’t have anything more fun to do (say, carve into your flesh with an x-acto blade or eat turned mayonnaise for the purpose of cleansing your lower intestine), by all means buy a ticket and then check back in. And click here for Part 2 of this review.