Wednesday, January 20, 2010

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Open Water (2004)

Amidst all the recent buzz generated by the low-budget Paranormal Activity (2009), I began contemplating another low-budget horror initiative of the 2000s; one that attempted the same alchemy (at least to some degree...), and also met with financial success. Yet this "other" movie has virtually been forgotten these days...

I refer to Open Water, a venture that cost a little over $100,000 to produce and which, like Paranormal Activity was also widely compared to The Blair Witch Project in terms of genesis, production, marketing, and even cost. After American and international theatrical release, Open Water grossed somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 million dollars....making it an unqualified hit. There was even a DTV sequel in 2006.

Shot on digital video, the original Open Water was a fictionalized account of a harrowing real-life incident. In 1998, an American couple was accidentally abandoned at sea by a commercial scuba diving boat following an incorrect head count.

That leaping-off point doesn't sound anything like Paranormal Activity, I readily acknowledge, but I suppose the association was triggered for me when I recalled that Open Water also featured, essentially, a cast of two (a man and a woman), focused intently on our use of and over-dependence on modern technology, and, finally, concluded in grim, unrelenting terms.

Directed by Chris Kentis, Open Water (like Paranormal Activity) depicts the routine of a very modern, very professional, very youthful American couple, Daniel (Daniel Travis) and Susan (Blanchard Ryan). They've ceded too much of their lives to all-consuming careers. When the couple needs a respite from incessantly ringing cell phones and e-mail, Daniel and Susan steal away on vacation to the Caribbean.

Ironically, when the exhausted Dan and Susan get to the islands, they don't relax. Instead, they fill every iota of free time planning expensive, colorful excursions, including a scuba diving trip. But once on the dive, a simple mistake results in the heretofore unimaginable: Daniel and Susan are left behind by their diving boat!

Adrift together in a turbulent, endless sea -- with night falling and sharks circling ever closer -- Daniel and Susan start countenancing the incomprehensible truth. No cell phones are available to call for help. No e-mail can type out a distress message. No rescue infrastructure, bureaucracy or "mommy" government will pluck them from the immediate and mortal danger. The easy, automatic, nay thoughtless technological "connectedness" of their daily lives proves an illusion in nature. And out here -- in the swallowing, hungry sea -- they have only each other to hold onto.

The majority of Open Water's scant seventy-nine minute running time is indeed spent at sea, featuring endless, vertigo-producing ocean-level shots of the couple coping with their horrible circumstance. Dan and Susan grow hungry. Fish nip at their legs. They vomit. They urinate. They fall asleep. They clutch at life, and, finally, to each other. It's a chronicle of unceasing agony...a hell on Earth.

The authentic location, the naturalism of the nearby threat (no CGI or mechanical sharks here...just the real thing...) and the capable hand-held camera work weave a more-than-sufficient tapestry of dread. This isn't a movie to watch dispassionately, it's one to experience almost literally as a participant. Those eye-level shots put you in the water too; so that you can almost feel the endless, merciless lapping of the waves.

Yet Open Water also remains an effective horror film because of the template that forms the bedrock of its simple narrative. This movie -- with such spare aesthetics and a blunt depiction of the worst no-win scenario imaginable -- intriguingly mimics Elisabeth Kubler-Ross's famous "five stages of death and dying."

Basically, Kubler-Ross's theory is that in facing mortality, human beings transition through a series of developments or stages. Open Water walks the audience through these five stages, as our protagonists attempt to come to terms with their fate in the pounding, eternal ocean. In other words, the movie -- once it hits the water -- is about preparing for the inevitable.

In accordance with the first stage of death and dying, at first, there is complete denial on the part of these tech-savvy, over-scheduled Americans. Daniel stubbornly clings to the hope that they will be miraculously rescued. In fact, he doesn't even swim towards another boat that is visible on the horizon because he believes so fervently that their diving vessel will recognize the mistake and return to the exact spot where it left them. Needless to say, that doesn't occur.

After a time, anger swallows-up denial. Splashing his hands in the water like a petulant child, Daniel bellows at the top of his lungs and throws a temper tantrum. He is bitter that they "paid" for this experience, the opportunity, essentially, to die at the mercy of the sharks. This too is a subtly funny comment on modern Americans, I suspect. Daniel seems more upset that the company took his money than that he is going to die. Soon.

Daniel and Susan then argue a lot, and she blames him for their crisis. This is her encounter with anger. He remained underwater looking at fish for too long, she complains, and that's why the boat left. It's always nice to be able to blame someone else, isn't it?

Ross's third stage of death and dying is bargaining. So Susan and Daniel talk about how -- if only they could just return to their comfortable life in front of the television and the Discovery Channel -- they wouldn't be so foolish as to entertain a venture like this again. They stepped out of their natural habitat (a technological one, interestingly), and have paid the price.

Shortly, the fourth stage, depression, sets in on our unlucky protagonists.. The doomed couple realizes that no one is coming to rescue them and that this is, indeed, how they are going to die. Here. Today. Now. No TV, Hollywood bullshit. No last minute cavalry coming over the hill.

Ross's fifth and final stage -- acceptance -- is at last broached. In one of the most coldly realistic, unflinching and horrifying scenes I've ever seen in a horror movi, Susan analytically accepts the reality of her situation. This protagonist makes a choice that is carefully weighed as a better option than being eaten by sharks. Our final survivor dips below the sea on purpose...and willingly drowns. With Daniel gone (eaten), Susan lets the ocean take her under...and away from life.

Open Water follows the Ross-style transition from one stage of death and dying to the next stage, from denial all the way through acceptance. The movie climaxes only when all five stages have been adequately vetted, and this structure grants the horror film a kind of artistic completeness and intellect that is all too rare in the American cinema today. It rings scarily true.

I still recall leaving the theater after Open Water feeling discomforted and troubled. The movie doesn't blink, doesn't retreat from the reality of the horrifying scenario, and there is no sunlight to part the dark clouds. Instead, the film reminds us that we don't control our fate. Something as simple and ultimately as meaningless as a mistake — a frigging arithmetic error — could impact our very lives. It's a horrifying thought, and one that we have all considered, no matter how briefly, after the terror we saw on 9/11. And this thematic terrain makes Open Water a profound statement about the human condition today.

Paranormal Activity features a couple in a similarly harrowing situation (only dealing with demonic possession), and it makes a comment about our dependence and fascination with technology -- and the belief that technology somehow barricades us from danger. But Open Water is a more hardcore, believable, natural and ultimately moving variation on the same theme: Our American Any Couple -- confident and affluent -- realizes that life isn't as secure as it seems.

Paranormal Activity made a lot of "best horror films of the decade" recently, while Open Water made relatively few or none. I suspect that's because Paranormal Activity has more fun with the premise; and because it lingers on things that aren't real (like demons). It ultimately gives us gimmicky horror touches that we can discount as fake: CGI demon faces and harness stunt work. Open Water relies on no such trickery. It is nihilistic in the extreme and doesn't tread into the supernatural. That might make it too strong a film for some.

Da Vinci once stated that water is the driver of nature. In Open Water, water is the medium that drives our human nature. How do we face inevitable death? Denial? Anger? Bargaining? Depression? Acceptance? Open Water is a brilliant horror film and a great character piece because there's something universal in Susan and Daniel's progression through Kubler-Ross's gauntlet of mortality. We recognize the steps.

And we fear them. For after acceptance...oblivion.


  1. Anonymous11:36 AM

    I saw "Open Water" at a preview back in 2004 and I'm still conflicted. I recall watching the movie and being drawn into the story -- I wasn't so much watching as having the movie happen to me, which is a rare and wonderful thing.

    Then they cut from the two stranded divers to one of the sailors on the dive boat finding their gear and looking at their IDs. That was when we learned that Susan and Daniel's last names are Watkins and Kintner, the names of the first two victims of the shark in "Jaws." There were probably only two or three people in the theatre who caught that reference (my wife didn't; she was baffled when I explained it), but I was one. When I saw that, it was such an obvious Easter egg that it took me completely out of the experience. What had been a harrowing, gripping drama was now a puppet show to me.

  2. Anonymous7:17 AM

    This is an under-rated movie. Being an Aussie, I remember the true story on which this was based; a couple called the Lonergans I think, and it occurred off the coast of Queensland. There were rumours around that they actually survived, others claimed he had planned to kill his wife and then himself. Dark stuff but not as dark as this movie which really left me feeling a combination of unease with relief and gratitude for my own relatively safe home, and life. Not many movies fill me with the creeping dread that this one did, and the blame that they placed on each other just seemed to add to the tragedy of the situation.


  3. Didn't like it. I felt the characters were set up as unlikable, and their reactions to their plight petulant and childish (a complaint I also had about BWP). This is usually called "realistic" by people who haven't been in dangerous situations (or at least read a lot of true-life accounts) but people in extremis generally behave better than one might expect (Quint's recollections of the Indianapolis sinking are accurate). I agree that the movie is "good", in the sense that it's well-made and evinces a conscious thematic structure (which you, JKM, are the first reviewer to reference) but it's BORING watching two annoying people bob and bicker for an hour and a half, knowing that no shark can attack 'til the end, because the movie is then over... a built-in limit to the concept.

  4. Hey DLR:

    You know, I think you make a relevant and interesting point.

    There's a certain character "type" in BWP, Paranormal Activity, {REC} and Open Water -- I agree it isn't an entirely realistic portrayal of people in traumatic situations (though perhaps naturalistic is a better descriptor...).

    Yet these flawed, bickering, capricious character types do allow each of the films to sort of carry or transmit the central social "critique" of the narrative (whether it is about technology; media; connectedness; etc.)

    Open Water was just 79 minutes, so for me the movie didn't wear out its welcome; but I readily ackonwledge that is certainly a judgment call, and I can see where and why you felt differently.

    Thanks for the comment!


  5. Open Water remains one of my favorite, perhaps my favorite, film of the early 2000s. I saw it once when it came out and it has haunted me ever since.

    I think the characters are supposed to be unlikable. The point of the film, as I see it, is that their self-absorbtion is why they got left behind. They were so caught up in their own lives and problems that they excluded everything and everyone else to the point of no return. Their marriage was falling apart and towards the end they claimed to still love each other, not because I believed they did, but because they didn't want to die alone (or unloved, I guess).

    I should also point out I thought the nude scene was actually important because it showed that they were comfortable with each other, but not intimate.

    I haven't seen Paranormal Activity, but if I were to pick a film to compare it to, I would have chosen the Strangers, which I felt was pretty much the same concept (self-absorbed couple at the end of their relationship, clinging to each other because of their situation and not for love or concern for the other one), but not executed quite as well...

    I love your comparison here to Kubler Ross, I never looked at it that way... If I ever get the guts to watch it again, I'll keep it in mind! :)