Sunday, August 29, 2004

Open Water

* * * (out of four)
Seen 26 August 2004 at Landmark Kendall Square #2 (first-run)

Open Water had the most effective trailer I've seen in a long time, because the basic concept is enough to freak one out and readjust your fears. Tension and fear are one thing, but Open Water offers despair. I recommended The Blair Witch Project because of how, supernatural elements aside, they nailed how being lost in the woods was one of the scariest things a person can go through, with potential danger behind every tree and none of the things human beings use to control their environment at hand.

That's bad, but the flip side is that civilization or a landmark or something useful might be just beyond that tree a few meters away. In the middle of the ocean, though, you would know just how screwed you are. You can see for miles and not only is there nobody to help, but ever direction looks the same. You can be drifting with the current and not even be aware of how far you've gone or in what direction. Salvation is not just around the corner, there's nothing you can do, and there's not even much in the way of information.

That's the situation Daniel (Daniel Travis) and Susan (Blanchard Ryan) eventually find themselves in. They're a likable young couple, attractive, too busy and stressed from their jobs, and just off on a vacation somewhat thrown together at the last minute. They sign up for a scuba-diving expedition, but a miscount on the boat leads to the rest of the group leaving while these two are still underwater.

And that is, for the most part, the last hour of the movie. They're stranded in tropical waters which are home to sharks and, in what is potentially an even more creepy visual, jellyfish. They've got nothing to do but try and stay afloat, avoid hungry sea creatures, and try to remain supportive of each other. As one might expect, extreme situations tend to dredge up strong feelings and buried resentments. This is occasionally broken up by cuts to the boat, where the tour operators and fellow passengers will hopefully eventually recognize that someone is missing so that the rescue ship one hopes is coming in the last act won't be a gigantic deus ex machina.

For a low-budget, shot-on-digital-video independant film, Open Water looks great. No, it won't put the IMAX shows at the New England Aquarium to shame, but the colors are very nice and graininess is seldom a problem. Writer director Chris Kentis chooses relatively straightforward compositions as opposed to trying to deceive the audience with the camera - the natural environment will do that well enough on its own.

The performances are good, especially once the cast is in the water. On land, Ryan and Travis are perhaps given a little too long to establish that they're regular folks, and have an easier time of it when they get to let loose with the strong fear, anger, and desperation. The movie may have benefitted by stretching the short running time out a little longer and giving some of these strong feelings time to build before exploding, but it does work fairly well as-is, and there may only be so long the audience can look at the same thing before fatigue starts to set in.

Even at eighty minutes, that's still something of an issue. The movie is great at delivering initial shocks, but the awareness that's one is watching a movie with all the attendant time compression makes sustaining it a bit trickier. Despair takes time to build in real life, as one needs hope actually drained away, but doing that takes more time than a movie can afford.

Most horror movies work on dread, and dread can be established more easily than despair. It's harder to demonstrate a negative, after all. Open Water takes a different tack, and it works out pretty well.

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