Shark Bait

Open Water delivers more flaws than jaws

Aug 18, 2004 at 4:00 am
As a reviewer, it can be very tempting to want in on the ground floor of a phenomenon, to say you were there first when some low-budget feature with a nifty premise made its festival debut, only to be picked up by a big studio and become a national phenomenon. Whether they'll admit it or not, everyone enjoys giving out a good "I told you so!"

It's even more tempting to be contrarian, taking aim at a film that has become the hip thing to praise and then decimating it as irrelevant or silly, or perhaps a pale imitation of some even more obscure foreign film that only you have heard about. And in the case of Open Water, already being presented as a sensation-to-be, there are ample openings for both approaches.

The hype on Open Water is that it's the Blair Witch version of Jaws, and that female star Blanchard Ryan is the Next Big Thing. We'll deal with Ryan later; now, about that Blair Witch thing. Yes, it's low-budget, and yes, as a result of that the filmmakers (writer/director/editor Chris Kentis and his wife, cinematographer/ producer Laura Lau) use more psychological horror than actual gore, while playing on people's fears of being isolated from civilization. They also used real sharks, which are inherently intimidating. And if you thought the Blair Witch camerawork was nauseating, you ain't seen nothing yet. Think hand-held cameras in the open sea, shaky and buoyed by the waves, shot on digital video (but not the good hi-definition kind). Even speaking as one who was raised on MTV and loves the immediacy of shoulder-cam footage, this critic's stomach was turning. There will be puking in some theaters, guaranteed, so if you're making it dinner and a movie, save the dinner for last.

Blanchard Ryan and Daniel Travis, both of whom have been on Sex and the City and not much else, play a dysfunctional married couple named Susan and Daniel who talk to each other on cell phones even when they're only a few feet apart. But none of the backstory really matters that much -- as soon as the flick begins, everyone in the audience is gonna be all, like, "Get to the sharks! We want sharks, dammit!" But then Ryan suddenly gets totally naked, so you forget about watery predators for a moment. We learn that Susan doesn't want to have sex, and Daniel doesn't want to just talk while they're in bed and naked. Mars, Venus. Get to the sharks!

Okay, so finally they get out on a scuba cruise. There's a goofy misunderstanding precipitated by a stereotypical "ugly American" type (Saul Stein) who screws up and then tries to act like everyone else is responsible, and as a direct result of his antics, the tour guide (Michael E. Williamson) messes up the head count and sails away without our heroes, leaving them stranded in -- drumroll please -- open water.

Other than occasional stock-footage type stuff set on land to show us what the couple is missing, the rest of the story takes place out at sea, as the two bicker, despair, scheme and confront first jellyfish, then sharks. It's moderately compelling drama, but also fairly static stuff, image-wise, and could easily be adapted to a stage play, wherein it would have far less potential to make the viewer sick. In some ways, it's reminiscent of the English cartoon feature When the Wind Blows, another tale of a married couple stranded and facing probable doom, though that film's nuclear bomb is a bit more intimidating (and definitively lethal) than sharks. The passage of the hours is marked by an occasional onscreen time stamp, which is why such time-lapse editing tricks as a montage of different types of flowing H2O feel gratuitous and silly, added possibly to pad out the film's running time, a scant 79 minutes.

The sharks are kinda creepy, it's true, but do we really need to have heavy soundtrack "stings" every time one shows up? Enough people are already afraid of them (even horror buff Rob Zombie claims that sharks are the only things that scare him) that this sort of cheap manipulation feels gratuitous.

And then there are the lead actors. Ryan is getting all the hype, and here's the probable reason why: She looks hot. After her character has been out at sea for a day and has pissed and puked on herself (diarrhea is also implied as a possibility but not shown, thank God), she still looks like a million bucks, and her makeup remains flawless. No sunburn, no chapped lips, no visible signs of dehydration...this is Hollywood's idea of an actress, so there you have it. Travis comes across as more like a real-world harried husband, so technically that would make him the better actor. Ryan's not bad, but there's nothing in her performance that's the equal of Heather Donahue's final big close-up in Blair Witch. Of course, Donahue wasn't a blond bombshell, and therefore hasn't managed to secure any other leading roles. Ryan will undoubtedly be more fortunate, but deservedly so? No more than a million other aspiring babes.