Beach Week 2017: Open Water (2004)
Shot on digital video, Open Water is 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.
Directed by Chris Kentis, Open Water 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 connection 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 movie, 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.
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.