★★★★ out of ★★★★★
A survival tale that feels so honest and voyeuristic that it becomes hard to watch. A low-budget hall of fame film.
Directed by Chris Kintner
Open Water is a movie that I actually dreaded turning on. I have come to realize that survival horror is a weak spot for me emotionally. It has the tinge of authenticity that allows my mind to go straight to the relatability of the situation. Stay tuned for an upcoming podcast on the sub-genre, but needless to say, Open Water is one of the (ahem) high water marks for films of this category. This is a two-person stage drama at sea that unfolds over 79 grueling minutes, as you see the hopeless plight of two divers: Susan (Blanchard Ryan) and Daniel (Daniel Travis) who are vacationing in the Carribean and whose boat has abandoned them at sea, due to an honest mistake.
Director Chris Kentis directed this movie for $120,000… or as IMdB is proud to point out, less than the sound budget for most major motion pictures. How did they keep the cost down? Use REAL SHARKS. The Caribbean reef sharks in the movie were chummed to the film site, and divers went into the water to film them. The fact that it is such a low budget production plays to its benefit, in a Blair Witchy way, in that it has a documentary aesthetic and it feels REAL. The actors were in the open sea, as well… and Blanchard Ryan actually got nipped by a barracuda in the process! Jaws is a superior story, with superior acting, and a scarier shark… but Open Water is much more dreadful. I love snorkeling. Jaws has implanted an irrational fear of deep water for me, but I’m fine with swimming where I can see the ocean floor. This movie may have undone me just a little.
Some of the most powerful moments are when Susan and David announce that they are going to look into the water, and you dread what they are going to see. Sometimes… nothing… or a solitary shark easily spooked away. But later on in the movie, as they continue to drift into deeper water, the shapes in the water are blurs, but below… hooo boy. And, it’s all about the situation. A nature documentary does not feel like this, even if the water is teeming with sharks. The sharks, in fact are not great whites… not the powerhouse single shot predators. These Caribbean reef sharks are about the size of a human, which is PLENTY big. And, they circle, and cruise, and menace. These sharks bide their time. Rarely are seagulls an ominous thing, but that was also a bad sign when they showed up.
The dread of abandonment is as strong as, if not a stronger fear than the sharks. Dehydration. Drowning. Exhaustion. All of those things that sap a would-be survivor’s will are in full evidence. And the film begins to get a bid maudlin as you watch these poor divers struggle along. Open Water is inspired by the famous true 1998 tale of two American divers who were left behind in the Great Barrier Reef off of Queensland, Australia, and never seen again. The movie recreates the same dive boat mistake in this movie, and it’s heartbreaking. Going into the movie you know it will be about Susan and David stranded at sea, but watching this error of omission happen slowly is a slow stomach turner.
The movie is ultimately as sad as it is horrifying. These are ordinary people. Very attractive ordinary people, yes, but their characters are ordinary working folks just out to have a vacation. They aren’t super scientists, they’re tourists. They also don’t go into full panic mode from the onset, which was an excellent script decision. The squabbling later also felt earned. The movie gives the characters enough time to cycle through all the emotions right to the very end. This is a grinder, and I almost didn’t want to watch the end of the film. This movie belongs in the low budget hall of fame, with Paranormal Activities, and the Blair Witch Project for maximizing the scary with a minimal cost. The film ended up grossing over $54 million worldwide, to date. Surprisingly Chris Kintner hasn’t yet spun another big hit out. There have been two other Open Water films, but like The Blair Witch, they don’t hold up compared to the original.
Open Water is Rated R. It could be PG-13, but for some nudity… and a lot of intense drama. It isn’t gory. If you’re OK with a few seconds of sexiness, this would be a good gateway film for teens getting into the genre. It’s available for rent streaming on Amazon, iTunes, YouTube, and Vudu.