Open Water (2003)

Lions Gate Films.  Director: Chris Kentis.

Creature Feature Bleachers Award: Smallest Crew

I’m not entirely sure whether or not “Open Water” can be classified as a sharksploitation film.  The filmmakers may not have thought so, but the distributors, Lions Gate Films, certainly tried to play it off that way (check out the sharky DVD cover below).  Personally, I’m not fully convinced that “Open Water” exploits the villainy of sharks enough to merit the “sharksploitation” label.  Nonetheless, it is a film about sharks vs. humans, so my advice is to watch it and decide for yourself (and share your verdict in the ‘comment’ box if you so wish).  This film is watchable enough that I can recommend it without feeling bad, although I will warn that it contains unexpected full frontal nudity of a nonsexual, totally unnecessary kind.  It caught me completely off guard, so be prepared.

Purportedly based on true events, “Open Water” tells the story of two vacationers, Daniel Kintner (Daniel Travis) and Susan Watkins (Blanchard Ryan).  As a remedy for their stressful everyday lives, the couple head out for some open water scuba diving.  When the tour guide miscounts the number of divers on the trip, however, the boat leaves early.  Daniel and Susan find themselves stranded in the middle of the ocean.  Alone except for each other, they float for hours and hours, hoping to be rescued.  But wait– was that a shark?

The DVD Cover

I have to admit, I feel a little bad picking this movie apart (a rare problem, I assure you).  Aside from the shark wranglers, the film’s crew consisted entirely of Chris Kentis and Laura Lau, a husband and wife team who had only made one movie prior to “Open Water.”  The couple wrote, cast, filmed, edited and funded the project themselves over a period of two and a half years.  The main reason it took so long to make the film is that, as Chris notes in a special feature on the DVD, he continued to work his day job in order to bankroll the operation.  Thus filming had to take place on weekends and vacation time.  This makes sense until you consider that the filmmakers had to fly themselves and the actors from New York to the Bahamas every weekend to do location filming.  The only way I can picture this method being cost-effect is if Chris was working for an airline at the time.  Or possibly in a gold mine.

“Open Water” is meant to be a very realistic portrayal of being stranded at sea, and I certainly give the film credit for its reasonably authentic depiction of sharks.  These are not mega-size sharkosauruses, nor are they bloodthirsty, intelligent killers.  No, the sharks in this film are just your average curious little guys.  Oddly enough, the low budget—and consequent lack of CGI or animatronic sharks— aided the realism in this respect.

He’s not a killer. He’s just a little nosy.

The action of the film also rings true.  Daniel and Susan have believable problems in their everyday lives, and the actors who play them have decent chemistry together.  The characters also deal with being stranded in a normal way: a progression through denial, optimism, and infighting, followed by resignation to their fate.  All in all, a believable account, although Susan is dumb enough to drink sea water within a couple hours of being stranded.

Nonetheless, the movie doesn’t quite “feel” real.  As an independent film, “Open Water” veers away from the classic Hollywood cinematic language that we have grown accustomed to over the years (e.g. scary music=scary scene; black hat + shifty eyes=bad guy).  Sometimes it’s nice to break out of the Hollywood norms, but in this case it comes off artificial.  Even though the classic Hollywood cinematic language is as arbitrary as any other, we are used to it, and it allows us to suspend our disbelief for the duration of the film.  “Open Water” attempts to avoid that language to enhance the realism, but in the end, the film only ends up drawing more attention to the fact that it is indeed a movie.

Let’s use an analogy to explain this point.  When you think about it, the word “pig” really has nothing to do with fat pink grunting animals, but we accept that “pig” refers to those creatures.  “Open Water” refutes this way of doing things, arguing, “The word ‘pig’ has nothing to do with the animal.  Let’s use ‘pig instead.”  The thickness and pinkness may resemble a pig more closely, but they draw your attention to the word’s existence, whereas before you were only thinking about its meaning.

If I’ve lost you, suffice it to say that the film felt like one of those cheesy TV movie recreations: “Sandra was passed out on the couch, oblivious to the flames dancing all around her.  Without help, she would suffocate in a matter of minutes.”

I’m still trying to puzzle out the nudity in this film, which is brief but more, uh… inclusive… than usual.  We see Daniel and Susan naked in bed together in their hotel room on the night before the dive.  Um, quite naked.  This nudity is completely unexpected and seemingly pointless, since no hanky panky ensues.  They could just as easily be wearing pajamas, for what it’s worth.  I think the intention was to play up the realism aspect, but it falls flat.  Yes, we know that people are sometimes naked in real life, but they also sometimes throw out used napkins, get junk mail, and bite the insides of their mouths, none of which is depicted in the film.  Again, this is a side effect of the indie nature of “Open Water.”  We are so used to the fact that every element of a film exists for a purpose that to have something as intense as full frontal nudity without a purpose just boggles the mind.  We expect there to be a sex scene afterward, and its absence makes the nudity awkward.

The strange thing is that the filmmakers were rather adamant about including this short and unnecessary nude scene.  Writer/director Chris Kentis stated that the actors chosen for the parts had to be willing to put up with a lot: that there’d be no crew, no hair and makeup technicians, that they’d have to become certified scuba divers, “that there’d be nudity,” that they’d be working with sharks.

The trailer represents the film pretty well:

“Open Water” is available on Amazon.

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