Daniel (Daniel Travis) and his industrious wife Susan (Blanchard Ryan) are a stressed out couple heading down to a Caribbean island for some rest and relaxation. After opting for a scuba diving excursion, a simple counting error soon strands the two alone in ocean waters, leaving them behind to fend off a series of undersea creatures and their own fatigue. When it becomes clear that no one recognizes that they’re missing, Daniel and Susan struggle to survive their own resentment towards each other and, eventually, the mounting number of sharks swimming by to get a bite.
In what is probably the biggest film to come down the path that the “Blair Witch Project” blazed back in 1999, “Open Water” is another experiment in digital video (DV) fear. Much like “Blair Witch,” “Water” doesn’t have anything in the budget department, using hostility and mounting anxiety in place of interesting scares or fundamental filmmaking skills. It’s a cheap looking, lethargic, dull piece of American independent filmmaking, and a creation that doesn’t have enough juice to scare, or enough gravitas to engage. It floats in the water aimlessly, much like the two main characters.
“Blair Witch Project” had a purpose for using a DV approach to the cinematography: it was trying to strip away fantasy and place the audience in a you-are-there scenario, thus blurring that line between drama and reality. It worked very well; people still to this day are sure that what they saw was an actual documentary. The approach that director Chris Kentis is taking with “Open Water” is that of any feature film, only using his DV creatively to create a mood of intimacy and doom when the couple first becomes stranded. The photography wears out its welcome fast, stripping away any cinematic qualities of the production (and trust me, Kentis is going for some with his lingering shots of the vacation island), and keeping the audience at arm’s length from the horror of the situation. In fact, when the photography goes underwater, the image soon becomes blocky and pixilated, as if the audience were watching a Game Boy screen. “Water” features the customary “watch out for nature’s wrath while smelling the daisies” message, but misses the most important point: lulling the audience into nature’s God-given beauty. You can’t read that on a DV image.
Taking up most of the first act to slavishly set up the circumstances in which this incident occurs, rather than truly digging into the dynamic between Susan and Daniel, Kentis finally gets to the meat of the matter in the last 30 minutes, when the couple begins to be hunted by the local sharks. Because the film had no money, the sharks attacking and the two actors are filmed separately, giving off some Ed Wood-ish fumes to the stalking sequences. Kentis expects the performances of Ryan and Travis to exclusively convey the pain and anguish of being lost in the ocean, and the two actors go a little overboard in an effort to sell the feeling. “Open Water” wants to be a type of “Scenes From a Marriage” production every time the sharks take a break, but outside of “she’s workaholic, he tolerates her,” there isn’t much for the audience to invest in emotionally.
Building an entire 80-minute film around the idea of two people floating in salt water, endlessly bickering and slowly dying as they wait out the hours is not an especially gripping enterprise. “Open Water” is the crude visualization of this idea, which might’ve been better served as a directing exercise for school rather than another overhyped Sundance Film Fest offspring that doesn’t deserve to be clogging theater space this crowded summer.Rating: D