Don’t believe the hype! Every year there’s at least one movie that the majority of the critical populace goes lollipops over, but that leaves the rest of us scratching our collective heads trying to figure out what movie they saw, because it sure as hell wasn’t the same one we were at. The year’s not over, but my vote so far in the 2004 sweepstakes goes to The Blair Shark Project … er, I mean Open Water.
By now you know the spiel: Yuppie couple gets left bobbing around in shark-infested waters by the world’s stupidest charter company during a scuba-diving jaunt, with the pair then threatened with being turned into box lunches for our finny friends. The film is supposedly “based on actual events” — which, in this case, serves as a reminder of the Quentin Crisp dictum that “even the worst movie is at least better than real life.” Then again, Mr. Crisp never saw Open Water.
Shot on video and transferred to film, the production looks and feels hideously amateurish. There’s nothing inherently wrong with shooting on video; indeed, it has placed film production within reach of a wider range of artists than anything ever to hit cinema. That, of course, is a double-edged sword, as it also makes it easy for junk like this to get made.
But the format isn’t what’s at fault here — though it does, except on rare occasions, give the whole thing a grungy reality-TV look that perhaps appeals to persons with a penchant for the mundane. The real problem lies in the silly first-year-of-film-school approach. Open Water is pointlessly fussy where it doesn’t need to be and too lazy by half when it most needs some cinematic goosing. The opening is a prime example of such amateurishness — littered with pointlessly “artistic” shots through leaves, “fancy” angles and close-ups of door handles. And all to convey what? Simply that Susan (Blanchard Ryan) and Daniel (Daniel Travers) are leaving their upscale home, getting into their upscale car and setting out on an upscale vacation. I was supposed to be impressed at the filmmaker’s invention; instead, I was snickering at the realization that 30 years ago, this kind of stuff would have been laughed out of film school.
Once the movie hits its central plot, this approach is relegated to some slightly more successful “artistic” transitions, while the camera tends to just sit there and grind away on the actors bobbing about in the water. At this point, you really may find yourself wishing this was a 30-year-old student film, where film stock was a precious commodity, and shots couldn’t run on endlessly.
Of course, Open Water doesn’t go straight from the car to stranding our heroes in the briney. Oh, goodness me, no! First we have to wade through what seems for all the world like someone’s home videos of their Caribbean vacation. (That’s worth $7.50 of anyone’s money, right?) Then there’s an obligatory nude scene with the requisite coyly draped sheet, a stupid sequence where Daniel has to get up (mystifyingly having put his pants back on) and chase a mosquito, and a bunch of really boring travelogue stuff.
Even when the filmmaking isn’t bludgeoning us with its amateur-night-in-the-tropics style, the screenplay is. Possibly realizing that there’s nothing to make us give a damn about these characters, the script sticks in an obnoxious character to make our leads look better by comparison — and to be accidentally instrumental in getting them left behind when the charter boat sets sail for home. Though only 79 minutes long, the movie takes what seems like forever just to get the duo stranded, and once it does … well, it doesn’t get better.
In fact, Open Water quickly falls prey to the same central issue that plagued its obvious inspiration, The Blair Witch Project — except on a smaller scale. Where that earlier film offered the “entertainment” of a group of uninteresting characters swearing at each other for 70-odd minutes, this one offers merely two uninteresting characters doing the same thing for approximately half the time. It’s kind of like a foul-mouthed variant on Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, but with snorkels. Except that no one says anything remotely clever or intelligent.
In its favor, I will say that Open Water at least doesn’t boast a five-minute long “snot-cam” confessional with Susan blubbering about how sorry she is. That is a comparative relief. And as for the much-praised horror content? Apart from one genuinely dynamic sequence that mostly takes place in the dark (with occasional lightning flashes), any horror here results from shock cuts and inordinately loud blasts of music.
And while this may make you jump, unless you have some inherent morbid fear of sharks eating you in a theater, I can’t imagine it doing much else.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke