For reviewers, it can be very tempting to want in on the ground floor of a phenomenon, to say they 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 go the other way, 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 is ample opportunity 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. 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 cinematographer-producer Laura Lau, his wife) use more psychological horror than actual gore while playing on people's fears. 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 (and not the good, high-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.
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 as if 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 the occasional insert/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.
And yes, Ryan looks hot. But there's nothing in her performance that's the equal of Heather Donahue's final big close-up in Blair Witch.
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