***** (out of 5)
August 20, 2004
Blanchard Ryan as SUSAN
Daniel Travis as DANIEL
Saul Stein as SETH
Estelle Lau as ESTELLE
Michael E. Williamson as DAVIS
Studio: Lions Gate
Directed by: Chris Kentis
BY KEVIN CARR
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This is the year for Lions Gate Films. They are quickly becoming the little studio that could, which isn’t bad considering a few short years ago they were known for straight-to-video garbage with an occasional table scrap from Miramax.
But after they released the gutsy, creepy thriller “Cabin Fever” last year, they have been making quite a name for themselves by releasing some excellent films that bridge the gap between art house indie and major Hollywood blockbuster. Some of their recent credits include “The Cooler,” “Dogville,” “The Punisher” and “Danny Deckchair.” It’s becoming what Artisan could have become after “The Blair Witch Project” if that studio hadn’t stumbled.
Lions Gate’s latest cinematic coup is the low budget scuba thriller “Open Water,” which made news with a Sundance sale ten times what it cost to film. It’s being touted as the best shark movie since “Jaws,” and has been getting great audience reactions in limited release.
The story is admittedly simple. Susan (Blanchard Ryan) and Daniel (Daniel Travis) are a vacationing couple that spends a little too long on a dive while on vacation. Due to a botched head count on the boat, the crew thinks all divers are aboard, leaving the couple stranded in the middle of the ocean. Over the next 24 hours, the couple faces the terrors of the open water, jellyfish, isolation, desperation and a whole bevy of sharks swimming at their feet. (If you get a chance, read about the true events that inspired the movie; they have more twists and turns than the plot of the film itself.)
“Open Water” is an excellent film because of its visceral simplicity. It was shot almost entirely with a video camcorder rather than on film. Once you get past the video-to-film transfer, which gives the film the shaky, dizzy feel of “The Blair Witch Project,” it’s easy to settle into the movie. (Take heart, though. I had to walk out of the theatre during “Blair Witch” because I felt nauseous, but I was able to sit through “Open Water” without a problem.)
The decision to shoot on video was a stroke of genius by the filmmakers. The average moviegoer doesn’t understand the complexity of bringing a film camera and crew into the ocean. I’ve worked on several films myself, and I am still baffled at the complexity of bringing a film camera and crew into an apartment. However, with a video camera, you can literally just point and shoot. Reportedly, the “Open Water” crew was sometimes only two or three people, offering the actors more realism and ease of shooting. This doesn’t hurt when you’ve got a school of sharks swimming under your feet.
Additionally, the video camera gives us the feel this is more like a documentary than a Hollywood recreation. How many times have we had to sit through someone’s boring vacation video? And how many times have we wanted to see something exciting happen? Imagine sitting at a friends house and they pull out the camcorder. “Hey guys! Check out when we were left in the middle of shark infested water by our scuba boat!” Now that’s something I’d be happy to see.
Ever since “Jaws” came out in 1975, people have been trying to make the next, greatest shark movie. However, like most of Hollywood’s blunders, they tried to do it by making things bigger and better with more special effects. What really makes “Open Water” work is that they took an entirely different approach. This isn’t a rehash of “Moby Dick” with the single supershark being chased by a schooner. The real terrifying thing about “Open Water” is that it presents the most realistic version of swimming with sharks I can imagine.
Instead of being chased down by a dorsal fin, Susan and Daniel only catch a glimpse here and there when the sharks actually break the water. The sharks circle mostly, leaving the audience wondering when the inevitable attack will occur. “Open Water” puts the viewer in the diver’s seat, letting us only see primarily what Susan and Daniel can only see – the surface. This movie cuts us with our own memories of being in the ocean, if we have them. For example, I was once swimming in the Gulf of Mexico off of Florida and saw a dorsal fin, then tail fin flit out of the water. I couldn’t get back on the beach fast enough, so I can easily imagine the fear that the characters of Susan and Daniel felt without a beach for retreat.
Another film that I’ve heard “Open Water” compared to is “Castaway.” But with this comparison, it’s clear to realize what a hack film “Castaway” was and what a brilliant thriller “Open Water” actually is. In “Castaway,” the filmmakers used every trick in the book when it came to digital effects to show Tom Hanks’ isolation on the island. The computer became the star. However, in “Open Water,” the audience is literally dropped in the water with the characters, and it is all real. No digital sharks. No painting out a massive crew. No Hollywood trickery. Just good, clean fun.
“Open Water” will definitely make you jump, and it might cause you to think twice before you get certified in scuba diving. This film has teeth, and it will no doubt inspire many an imitation of the years. But like any one-of-a-kind films that has a groundbreaking debut, it will never be duplicated.