Don’t be fooled by the marketing. Open Water isn’t a new Jaws; it’s closer to The Blair Witch Project at sea, though it’s less scary and makes fewer emotional connections with the audience. The central couple, Daniel and Susan (the actors’ real names), aren’t written as characters; they’re just types. He’s the solid, all-American good guy, and she’s the bitchy work-obsessed career woman. Their relationship has grown stale, and we’re given to assume it’s largely because Susan’s energies all go into her work, but there’s no hint of who they really are or why they got together. The opening scenes feel perfunctory; they exist only to get these two people into the ocean so they can be left behind.
Once that has happened, the overwhelming issue isn’t the danger; it’s the tedium, the waiting to see what will happen next. Hour after hour, the couple deals with minor injuries and threats, trying to marshal their resolve to survive until help arrives. They attempt to keep their spirits up, but it becomes more and more difficult over time, and they fluctuate between bitter arguments and declarations of their love. In these scenes, the actors are able to establish some essential humanity in these vague characters, and the audience finally comes to feel some stake in their survival, though Susan’s shrill complaining and constant scowl do at times make one wish the sharks would hurry and finish her off.
The filmmakers, husband-and-wife team Chris Kentis and Laura Lau, do their level best to keep the film visually interesting, but there are only so many ways you can film two heads bobbing in the middle of the ocean. It doesn’t help that Open Water is shot on digital video, giving the images a grainy texture that doesn’t capture either the beauty or the menace of all that water.
When a film has a single ambition, it has to really achieve that goal or fail entirely. Kentis and Lau are so intent on giving us the scary bits that they don’t properly set them up so that the impact is felt. In the end, the film is a cheat. The scares don’t work and well, really, there’s nothing else there to work. I walked out of the theater feeling depressed in the same way that I might after reading a newspaper headline about an unfortunate event. It’s really awful that these things happen, but it really doesn’t have anything to do with me, and before long I won’t even remember what I’d read or that I briefly cared.
Open Water is receiving some laudatory reviews from critics who call it things like “A startlingly intense thriller!” “Bone chilling!” and “One of the scariest movies I have ever seen!” But what they’re reacting to isn’t really what’s in the movie; it’s memories the movie triggers. Having seen Jaws and other shark movies or nature programs on television, many people are now wired to jump out of their skin at the very sight of a shark. If that’s how your brain works, Open Water may well work on you, but it’s not due to anything the filmmakers have accomplished. They have only capitalized on existing fears in a certain segment of the audience. While recognizing and exploiting those fears is something, it’s not the same as competent filmmaking. If, like me, you see sharks as just big, toothy fish that generally present you no particular threat, you’ll find you remain stuck firmly inside your skin, waiting, waiting, waiting, for it all to be over.
Jeremy C. Fox is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society. You may email him at jeremycfox[at]gmail.com.
Film | May 12, 2006 | Comments ()