Saturday, September 15, 2007

reVIEW (23)

Daniel and Susan (Daniel Travis and Blanchard Ryan) are off on a hastily-planned vacation, little knowing that they will face an ordeal that will test their will and resolve, an unpredictable twist of fate that leaves them stranded in shark-infested Open Water.

Shot by director/writer Chris Kentis with a regular camcorder—which gives it the look and feel of a faux documentary—Open Water is a decidedly uncomfortable film experience. Which is not to say it’s a bad film; it isn’t. The performances and the dialogue are rather good, giving us real people to identify with, as opposed to the annoyingly bland ciphers we had to endure in The Blair Witch Project, one of the films Open Water has been compared with. (More on that later.)
It’s just that it’s a film I don’t really care to watch a second time. Now, I’ve watched other films that I feel are far more harrowing than Open Water. Darren Aronofsky’s blisteringly hypnotic Requiem for a Dream and Gaspar Noe’s Irreversible come to mind, but the former is a horribly effective cautionary tale against drugs, and the latter’s storytelling technique (story’s end first, working our way towards the story’s beginning, ala Memento) manages to at least elevate the sordid material. Actually, Requiem also boasts of Aronofsky’s visionary and kaleidoscopic storytelling technique, so I think that’s an important point.

Not that technique is totally absent from Open Water, but other than a stand-out sequence as we near midnight (the couple having been drifting for over half a day), most of the film is presented to us in a pretty straight-forward manner, contributing greatly to its documentary feel. Now, some may argue that without fancy camera movements and angles and MTV-editing, we are not distracted from the story. My problem here is this is not so much a story as it is a situation.
At the risk of generalizing, a film can either entertain, or it can actually say something; sometimes, a film can do both. Now, though what is “entertainment” is largely a subjective thing (I may think South Park is entertaining—and I may think it says something too—but to others, it may just be crass and offensive; in the same way, what others may find entertaining could be, for me, some Hollywood feel-good claptrap) but watching the discomfort and agony of two people is certainly not entertainment in my books.
And since the majority of the film is just us watching the poor couple suffer, we are even left with an unwelcome sense of having been a perverse and sadistic voyeur to the proceedings. The fact that the film is based on a real-life incident makes the viewing experience even less savoury: two people really were abandoned out in the middle of nowhere.
Open Water doesn’t seem to say anything either (except perhaps that bad things happen for no good reason). So if it doesn’t entertain, and it doesn’t really say anything significant or profound, then what is it there for? All it really seems to do is document an unfortunate couple’s suffering without leaving any signposts to tell us how this could have all been avoided.

Now, the film has been glibly described by some as “Jaws meets The Blair Witch Project,” which is really doing a disservice to Jaws, still one of Spielberg’s best, after all these years. Open Water though, does resemble Project (but it is a better film, if that’s any consolation). Both are low-budget films that really don’t have a story per se, but just throw individuals—and the audience—into an uncomfortable, tension-filled situation, and let the cards fall where they may.
And though I do believe horror is the great democratic leveler of all, and is there to jostle us and wake us up from complacency, I also want a story as the foundation and framework upon which that horror will be draped, not some situation. (Also one of the big problems I had with The Blair Witch Project.)
In the end though, if you intend to watch Open Water, prepare yourself for an unpleasant experience. And don’t expect any kind of comfort or even sense to the proceedings. This is a document of suffering, plain and simple.

(Open Water OS courtesy of; DVD cover art courtesy of

(The above is a slightly altered version of a previously published review entitled “Terror on the High Seas, Agony at the Multiplex.”)

No comments: