A digital-video shark-attack flick that its filmmakers shot on weekends and while on vacation in the Caribbean, Open Water emerged from a Sundance feeding frenzy last winter as designated successor to The Blair Witch Project. But while Blair Witch remains one of the great structural stunts in movie history, a terrifying and radically suggestive experiment in first-person verité and offscreen space, Open Water is simply a stunt—hopelessly literal-minded and cheap in every sense. To put it another way, one plays like a home movie shot by film students who got lost in the woods and never returned, the other plays like . . . a home movie shot by filmmakers on vacation in the Caribbean.
A less than relaxing vacation, to be fair. As you may have heard, Open Water has exactly one selling point: It’s a shark movie with real sharks. Written, directed, and edited by Chris Kentis, who split cinematography duties with his wife and producer, Laura Lau, the movie strands superstressed scuba-diving yuppies Daniel (Daniel Travis) and Susan (Blanchard Ryan) in the middle of the ocean, leaving them to contend with seasickness, jellyfish, and a school of hungry sharks. Conspicuously padded even at 79 minutes—there seem to be more cloud shots than in Gus Van Sant’s entire body of work—Open Water milks a preliminary sense of morbid anticipation for as long as it can. As if to justify the scenario’s inherent sadism, neither protagonist elicits much sympathy (or indeed any response besides an occasional pang of annoyance). The combination of unflattering videography and tan, buff, blandly attractive actors mouthing stilted dialogue gives the opening scenes a curious porn-like quality. (Even later, as they’re helplessly adrift, you half expect the couple to wash up on Temptation Island.) Daniel and Susan’s workaholic dependence on cell phones and laptops is clumsily mocked—and duly punished when they’re abandoned by their dive boat after an incorrect head count, cut off from the world and left in a dire situation that they promptly turn into a bratty domestic dispute.
The blotchy DV photography borders on the unacceptable whenever the camera isn’t trained on the water, but the video image’s subliminal instability and lack of differentiation are a reasonably good fit for the roiling, infinite ocean. While Open Water, basically a gonzo “Shark Week” re-creation without the F/X budget, never approaches a pitch of primal terror, it scores a few jolts, thanks to the hallucinatory resemblance between the tip of a fin and the peak of a wave. The sharks, when they finally appear, are compact enough to make you miss the animatronic brutes of Deep Blue Sea. (They’re human-friendly reef sharks, wrangled by a handler and the crew with bloody slabs of tuna.) The actors wore chain mail under their wet suits, and as is obvious from the angles and the editing, weren’t actually swimming with the fishes during the most traumatic moments. No shark-related injuries were sustained, although the production notes proudly report that Ryan was nipped by a barracuda on the first day of shooting.
Purportedly “based on true events,” Open Water is so obsessed with reality (the way snuff movies and Fear Factor are obsessed with reality) that it rudely neglects realism. Unlike Blair Witch, in which an airtight premise allowed and even accounted for slapdash execution, Open Water, failing to recognize the chasm between gimmick and concept, is an unwitting meta-movie—so sloppily assembled that suspension of disbelief is all but impossible. This is acting as reality-TV ordeal: Watching these poor saps bobbing in the water, you don’t see a couple fighting for their lives so much as a pair of no-name actors proving how far they’ll go for a part, visibly suffering the strain of having to commit their lines to memory, emote, stay afloat, and swat away their circling co-stars. But by design, no less than their characters, they’re chum. Real sharks, in this film’s depressing, cynical schema, are so surpassingly cool they preclude the need for real actors.