Realism keeps 'Open Water' afloat

By Ed Robertson, atomictown.com July 5, 2012 

I have a love/hate relationship with deep water. On one hand, there are all kinds of interesting things under the waves. On the other hand, there are also all kinds of horrifying things. In their natural environment. While you are essentially a bobbing, meaty Pop-Tart.

That's why I've been wanting to see 2003's Open Water since it came out. Just nine years later, I'm living my dream.

On vacation in the tropics, Blanchard Ryan and Daniel Travis go on a diving trip, only to be left behind by the tour boat. Stranded in the middle of the ocean, they have no way back to shore -- and they're surrounded by sharks.

Open Water starts off with a whole lot of nothing. Starting with nothing is pretty common in movies. Even horror and action movies have to introduce you to the cast and their humdrum lives before beginning the business of ruining those lives forever.

But Open Water does a special amount of nothing in its first act. There are no cinematic tricks for cheap drama. The plane doesn't almost crash on their way to the island. No prehistoric mutant sharks are released from underfunded Russian labs. Instead, Ryan and Travis' vacation is almost aggressively mundane. In fact, it makes going on vacation look like the real horror. So boring! Why would anyone do all that planning and traveling just to look at a few fish? If you are alive, chances are you live next to a water supply. There are fish in that water right there. Go look at them instead.

That mundanity is intentional, of course. Because their trivial, everyday vacation quickly becomes something that ideally happens on no days. Yet, the story remains very simple -- they make the decision to stay put and soon find themselves surrounded by sharks.

These sharks, incidentally, are real. Open Water was made on a very small budget, relatively speaking, and the internet claims it used no CG at all. So the sharks cleaving the waters around Ryan and Travis are real. Which is funny because given the movie's budget, they can't have been paid much. Wait, that isn't that funny.

Writer/director Chris Kentis is an interesting talent. I like his editing, and he has a lot of great instincts -- he lingers on the couples' left-behind objects, creating a cold, cruel atmosphere that's perfect for the movie. He can't always execute these instincts effectively, and with its protagonists incapable of doing anything but floating and getting bitten, Open Water is no masterpiece. But its realism makes it riveting in a way CG-fests simply can't achieve.

* Contact Ed Robertson at edwrobertson@gmail.com.

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