To compare Open Water to The Blair Witch Project would be somewhat of a slag. This low-budget shark movie is a far superior film, with solid acting throughout, a far more nerve-ravaging premise, and an ending that doesn’t feel like a major cheat. The scariest moment of Steven Spielberg’s Jaws is arguably when the female swimmer gets tugged underwater by an unseen predator shark, a moment that lasts a few terrifying minutes. Open Water is basically an entire film as creepy and unsettling as that moment.
The film is loosely based on the true story of Tom and Eileen Lonergan, two American divers who went out for a swim in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef in 1998. They were never seen again because their chartered boat accidentally left them behind. The setting has been changed to the Bahamas, where characters Susan and Daniel (Blanchard Ryan and Daniel Travis) have forced themselves to take a break from their fast-paced business lives.
The opening portion of the film does a good job establishing the vibe of Susan and Daniel’s relationship (tense). They have problems and quibbles that many can relate to, and it’s a little sad to see two attractive and intelligent people taking each other for granted. By the time they hit the water for some recreational diving on a chartered tour, it’s easy to feel a sense of relief for Susan and Daniel in that they might get the break they deserve and start getting their act together.
Too bad those piloting their boat are ding-dongs. A miscount leaves the couple stranded in the ocean, surrounded by ships on the horizon that can’t see them and a bunch of curious reef sharks that most certainly acknowledge their presence. As the seemingly innocuous sharks slowly close in, Susan and Daniel bicker over the circumstances that put them in their unholy predicament. When the sharks start making contact, things disintegrate quickly.
Open Water works well because the characters in peril are likeable and real. An engaged viewer will feel an extreme sense of tension as their situation worsens. True, some horror fans desire a body count, but the point comes in this film where nothing would be better than to see Susan and Daniel back on the shore, drinking some margaritas and thanking the Lord that they didn’t get eaten.
Ryan and Travis give the very definition of brave performances here, although some might qualify their work as completely insane. The rather big sharks bumping into the professional actors are all real, some of the species with a history of eating the occasional person. Ryan and Travis wore protective mesh under their wet suits and spent many hours swimming with the real thing. That’s totally nuts and, of course, totally appreciated by yours truly because it makes for kick-ass entertainment.
Writer-director Chris Kentis uses digital video to capture the action, and while that’s mostly because of budgetary constraints, it turns out to be a blessing. The shaky cam bobbing in the water with Susan and Daniel feels like their hated Uncle Monty is along for the trip, videotaping their vacation gone bad on a rowboat nearby. When Susan finally succumbs to the bobbing and barfs, some motion-sickness-prone viewers might follow suit.
If you’re looking for limb-ripping, torso-shredding mayhem, Open Water is not your film. It gets its R rating mostly due to the mounting tension and bad language, not onscreen gore. When shark fins abruptly pierce the surface in this movie, the scares are as strong as anything to hit screens this year. No amount of spurting blood could equal that kind of terror.