Open Water: This Year’s Blair Witch

gen-x-review-open-water-movie-poster.jpgWe all know the feeling: The ground beneath us slips away and we suddenly realize we’re way over our heads.

A big, hard thing knocks against your foot. The jagged outline of a fin rises next to you, then sinks into the gray water. There is definitely… something… in the water… with you.

Welcome to Open Water, this year’s Blair Witch, just when you thought the realist convention of jittery point-of-view shots was behind us and we could get back to conventional camera world. Open Water is as intense and satisfying a film as you are likely to see this summer, just don’t expect to enjoy any end-of-the-summer beach days after seeing the movie.

Susan (Blanchard Ryan) and Daniel (Daniel Travis) are a modern 30-something couple. They are shallow, successful people, good at their jobs, physically fit, active – in short, yuppies. They rely on technology and have tethered themselves to cell phones, laptop computers and digital cameras in their daily lives.
Their wealth protects them, insulates them from the real world where you are either predator or prey.

They hastily leave on a last-minute vacation to a tropical island, trying to find time in their busy lives for one another. On the island they play tourists, following the well-developed scripts we all are given in these circumstances: Eating exotic foods, drinking fruity mixed drinks, wearing dumb hats.

On the second day of their vacation they go deep-sea diving. The day begins uneventful enough, with the sort of safe back-to-nature “petting dolphin” play we’ve come to expect from the Discovery Channel, but when they surface, Susan and Daniel find that the tour boat is gone.

Although their lifeline to civilization has been broken, they are not, strictly speaking, alone. Strange things move beneath them. Although they have names for the creatures – sharks, jellyfish, stingrays – nothing in their science prepares them to share space with these creatures.

In the beginning Daniel anchors this new experiences in television, desperate to find rationality in all the ocean’s craziness. He recites facts from Shark Week, discusses the certification process, and talks about the impossibility of the situation in order to reassure himself of their rescue. Reason is slippery in the middle of nowhere, though, especially when the monster isn’t just an image on television, but something tapping at your foot.

Susan and Daniel are reduced to children. Nothing in their pampered world has prepared them for this reality, and the ocean strips the layers off these people until we see the raw, scared kids below. They begin consoling one another by calling each other “baby” and grip desperately onto one another.
But the farther they float out to sea, the deeper they drift apart emotionally and disintegrate psychologically. He resents her work and feels threatened; she does not believe or trust him. His frustrations boil over into guttural sounds while she is reduced to whimpering pathetically.

“I don’t know what’s worse, seeing them or not seeing them,” Susan says after a shark explodes in the water nearby.

“Seeing them,” Daniel replies.

Writer-director Chris Kentis uses every inch of the screen. Shadows dart just beneath the surface of the ocean. They could be anything – sticks, seaweed, the edge of a wave, a tentacle, fin, something’s eye – and Kentis suspends this uncertainty as long as possible, using visual ambiguity to heighten suspense. We find ourselves searching, like the characters, for the familiar, yet unknowable thing that we know circles in the murky darkness around them.

Like M. Night Shyamalan, Kentis frames scenes so that action occurs at the peripherals, just out of sight. It’s a bitter reward for audience members to spot a potential threat rise and then disappear as characters look elsewhere, and Kentis amplifies the sensation by allowing many of these dangers to level out and disappear.


Less a character study of Susan and Daniel than an exploration into our own primal fears, Open Water somehow makes nothing seem pretty scary. The film’s extraordinary visual storytelling is more effective than conventional dialog-driven narratives, but the characters remain strangers to us even as they seem intimately familiar.

The film is situation-driven, not character-driven, and it is difficult for audiences to adjust to this level of emotional intensity while not particularly knowing the film’s main characters. But this is the point. Despite personal quirks, Susan and Daniel are not fully fleshed characters: They are bait, designed to draw us into the drama and force us to believe that we too could find ourselves in over our heads.

We have built our civilizations on solid ground to get away from the slippery, sharp, strange things that own the bottom of the oceans. But, Yes, Virginia, the beautiful places have their sharks, too, and that lovely, tanned body you have been working on all summer is just food to the things that lie below the surface of the water.


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