Open Water: Stress on the High Seas

Open Water has been described as “Jaws meets The Blair Witch Project,” and not since Bambi Meets Godzilla have the two progenitors of a movie been more accurately identified.  The pairing of Steven Spielberg’s first blockbuster with Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez’s mocumentary conjures such a specific image of low-budget aquatic terror that one is tempted to imagine the phrase alone captures everything worth knowing about this film.  That would be selling Open Water short, though.  As a horror film it pulls off at least one feat that neither The Blair Witch nor Jaws achieved.  It terrifies without ever resorting to the supernatural. 

Open Water begins with Daniel (Daniel Travis) and his wife Susan (Blanchard Ryan) departing for a much needed vacation.  Cell phones, PDAs, and laptops, the modern manacles of the executive class, fill their lives with such an excess of stress that they can’t really escape it in their day-to-day existence.  They have to physically remove themselves through travel.  Toward that end, they arrange a scuba diving tour off the coast of the Bahamas, and because of an improbable but utterly plausible mix-up in the head count when the divers resurface, the couple gets left behind when the boat heads back to the docks.  That’s when the stress really begins to mount.  Daniel and Susan are alone in a vast ocean full of jellyfish, barracudas and hungry sharks.

If Open Water really were reducible to a phrase like Jaws meets The Blair Witch, audiences would probably leave at the point where Susan and Daniel are first abandoned, rather than stay to witness their inevitable fate.  From the very beginning, however, this film strives to explore something else.   Along with the cell phones and laptops that make up the stressful landscape of the characters’ working lives, extreme close-ups focus our attention on the nerve-wracking details of their vacation escape.  Susan’s hand carefully checks the door as she locks it shut. Daniel’s finger presses a light switch so he can swat an insect that is troubling the couples’ sleep in the hotel.  A hand brushes over the numeric display of the digital alarm clock that awakens them at 6am on the morning of the tour.   These shots show the Midas-like transformative power of this couple: everything they touch turns to stress.  

From this perspective Open Water looks like a commentary on the failure of contemporary American life to provide any real relaxation.  A vacation becomes a nightmare because this couple brings their stress with them.  Even a potentially intimate moment in bed on the night before the dive provides no relief as they both realize they’re not quite in the mood for intimacy.   A brief respite does come during the dive when they are bathed in blue, observing coral and following eels, but this momentary reprieve leads to further stress as they wander from the group and surface five minutes late.   After a few hours, and once it’s dawned on them that they’ve truly been forgotten, Daniel verbalizes the biting irony of their predicament.  “The best part is,” he sneers, “We paid for this!”  During an argument with Susan, he realizes what the audience must be thinking, and what is inadvertently perhaps, the subtext of this movie.  Compared to this, their hectic working lives are heavenly.

Like The Blair Witch Project, Open Water was shot on a minimal budget ($130,000) with a minimal cast and crew. Writer/director Chris Kentis and his wife, Laura Lau financed the film with their own money and shot it on digital video over a number of years.   The film’s stark realism is accentuated by the lack of any special effects or giant mechanical beast to torment the couple.  Compared to Bruce, the giant shark in Jaws, the real sharks in Open Water appear small, and not particularly aggressive.  They aren’t really the source of the horror, though.  The horror in this film comes from the knowledge that the couple has purposefully sought out the placid scenery of the open water as an escape, only to realize they have made their lives more stressful.   As summer draws to a close, and studies come out showing that Americans work longer hours—already 350 more per year than Europeans, as overtime pay disappears, a film that shows there’s no point in trying to escape from stress offers some minimal consolation.  

This article was originally published in my CineMatters column for The Baltimore View, September 2004. Joseph Christopher Schaub