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OPEN WATER

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Blanchard Ryan, Daniel Travis
Director:  Chris Kentis
Audio:  Dolby Digital EX 6.1, DTS ES 6.1
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio:  Lions Gate
Features:  See Review
Length:  81 Minutes
Release Date:  December 28, 2004

“Water, water, everywhere,

And nary a drop to drink!”The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Film **

A vacationing couple pops up after a morning of scuba diving and finds their boat has gone, leaving them stranded in the middle of the ocean.  Not much could be more terrifying than that.

Yet Open Water doesn’t much scare past its premise, and once you get used to that, there’s not much left to do except wait and see how it all turns out.  Some critics have called the film the Blair Witch Project on water, but the only true comparison between the two is the small budget each had to work with.

Blair Witch kept audiences unnerved because we knew there was a menace threatening our protagonists, but had no idea what the menace was or what it would do to them.  In Open Water, we know the menaces are sharks, and we know what sharks will do to people.  But while the occasional fin or shadow in the water appears to keep us off balance, we aren’t really giving in to the idea…after all, we’re pretty sure the sharks won’t eat the divers at the 50 minute mark, otherwise there’d be no movie left.

Susan (Ryan) and Daniel (Travis) are a young married couple set out on a tropical island vacation.  They join a scuba expedition group, but end up left behind because of an error in head count.  At first, they are confused, not knowing what happened.  Then they become worried when they realize they’re drifting with the ocean’s current.  And finally, scared, when they remember they’re not the only living things out there.

It’s an incredible premise, and I, for one, love scary movies that leave a little something to the imagination.  But I just never got caught up in the goings on.  Director Chris Kentis filmed many of the ocean scenes at water level (the technique Steven Spielberg perfected in Jaws), but others, he filmed obviously from a boat with the camera pointed down at our intrepid swimmers.  I later realized that was subconsciously taking me out of the moment; the high point of view made me think they really weren’t all THAT alone out there.  That and the terrible music score of island voices suddenly rising up out of nowhere…I kept thinking something was approaching.

There’s only so long you can watch a couple bobbing around in the ocean before your attention starts to wane.  There is no buildup into or resolution out of everything; the plot diagram is kind of a flat line with little twitches in it here and there.  An effort to drum up dramatic tension at the halfway point leads to some considerably bad tripe passing for real dialogue.

Simply put, the movie couldn’t sustain its singular idea for a full 81 minutes, and the characters aren’t fleshed out enough to keep us emotionally invested.  Some of the technique is admirable, especially the night scene where the screen is frequently completely black save for intermittent flashes of lightning and the sounds of the divers getting more and more frightened. 

But the key to suspense is knowing just how long to keep the audience hanging before delivering the payoff.  Too little time, and the fun is over before you even know it.  Too much time, and you’re no longer caring.

Video ****

No complaints in this department…shot on digital video and transferred to film, Open Water is a bright, colorful film rich in detail.  The underwater scenes look fabulous, and shots in all levels of light come across with clarity and integrity.  Very nicely done.

Audio ****

The decision to use extended digital soundtracks was the right one…both Dolby Digital and DTS 6.1 offerings keep you right in the middle of the action, with the clear, crisp sounds of the ocean all around you, and splashes that will keep you peering over your shoulder.  Dynamic range is strong and the subwoofer gets some workout from the boat motors and the thunderclaps.  A superb offering.

Features ****

The disc boasts two commentary tracks…the first is from writer/director Chris Kentis and producer Laura Lau (not just filmmaking partners, but married as well), and the second is from actors Blanchard Ryan and Daniel Travis.  Both are enjoyable listens; it’s often the low-budget films that make for the most interesting commentary tracks.  The shoot was somewhat perilous, and the actors were really in the ocean with real sharks, so be prepared for an interesting tail...er, tale or two.

There are also 7 deleted scenes, a trailer, a making-of featurette, some advice on indie filmmaking from the Lions Gate executives, and some bonus at-sea footage.

Summary:

Some good ideas just don’t translate to the movie screen.  Open Water boasts one of the year’s most intriguing premises, but one that can only be developed so far.

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