Open Water

About the only thing holding Open Water back from being an indisputable masterpiece is the fact that it’s a 79-minute movie. It almost needs to be an experience — a thrill ride at a theme park, say, in which we are marooned in darkness and among hungry animals for 24 hours. If any movie could’ve benefited from being a real-time Andy Warhol experiment that runs for eight hours, Open Water might just be it. As it is — an abbreviated yet often harrowing fable of the utter insignificance of man and his digital trappings — the film is some kind of boiled-down classic, a survival piece that goes Cast Away one better, lacking even the comforting stability of land.

You’ve probably heard the synopsis: A yuppie couple, Susan (Blanchard Ryan) and Daniel (Daniel Travis), go scuba-diving on vacation and are left behind by the boat. Left behind — those words, even more than the curious sharks and the nonchalantly stinging jellyfish, turn our blood to ice. It’s been said that even those who live thousands of miles away from the ocean were terrified by Jaws, because (so the theory goes) we evolved into land-walkers in order to get away from those aquatic things with teeth, and we still carry a primal fear of sea predators in our cells. Add to this the childhood fear of being abandoned — forgotten, disregarded, as if we never existed. Open Water is no novelty film like The Blair Witch Project; the film’s director, Chris Kentis, resents the perhaps inevitable comparisons, and rightly so. Open Water does, and does brilliantly and economically, everything Blair Witch fumbled.

Like many horror films, this is not a nice one. Blame for the affluent white couple’s lamentable situation, if you felt like nitpicking the film’s stereotypes, could be distributed evenly among a squeamish Asian woman who can’t handle the dive, the pushy Jew who borrows her mask so he can dive, and the careless black guide who gets the head count wrong. Ultimately, though, the blame falls on Susan and Daniel for presuming to be masters of their domain, even when hopelessly out of their element. Marooned at sea, the couple respond with eminent realism: disbelief followed by dismay followed by despair. This is not an environment that these two, formerly ensconced in a universe of laptops and cell phones, can hope to master, much less survive. Open Water will send control freaks into paroxysms of anxiety: The miles of ocean beneath you and around you don’t care who you are. You are a molecule, you are driftwood, you are amusement for sharks.

The acting at the very beginning is somewhat blank, I assume by design. Susan and Daniel are your typical eternally distracted drones, digitally attached to their jobs. Susan in particular is plagued by calls from the office, even when readying for departure; how much she would give to have an annoying cell phone a day or so later. The yuppies yearn for a temporary escape from civilization, and get it with a vengeance. Daniel at one point lets out the essential yuppie howl at the injustice of his fate: not “Why us?”, not “God, help us!”, but “We paid to do this!” In context the line is horrifyingly funny, trumping by far the various outbursts of frustration in Blair Witch.

As the movie proceeds, the characters are stripped down to their basics, and Ryan and Travis do a heroic job of submitting to the unforgiving elements. These whitebread breadwinners are reduced to their skins and nerve endings, buffeted about by weather, casually bumped by sharks who seem to regard our protagonists as too inconsequential to bother eating — just yet. Far from being a minimalist rewrite of Jaws, Open Water taps into the current fear of being impersonally destroyed by unseen forces that don’t care if we live or die. It also touches our experiences in other, less direct ways: Susan and Daniel could just as well be sitting in a hospital’s waiting room, dreading bad news.

Sooner or later we all face the cold knowledge that the universe doesn’t really take notice of us, that the bodies we worry about so much are subject to invasion by cancer, heart disease, or any number of other things that don’t care how well our jobs are going or what our dreams are. Open Water does what all classic horror does: it makes us stare death in the face and recognize the face as our own.

Explore posts in the same categories: horror, one of the year's best, underrated

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