Open Water

Perhaps my single biggest phobia is death by water. In fact, one of my earliest childhood memories is of nearly downing in a Boulder, Colorado, swimming pool. So, naturally, I decided to see the low-budget ($130,000 according to IMDB) thriller, Open Water, last night. Open Water tells the story of a married couple, Susan and Daniel, who are abandoned in the ocean by a scuba boat that caters to tourists. The film’s low budget, its lack of special effects, and its genre connections, have inspired comparisons to The Blair Witch Project, but such comparisons don’t really do justice to either film. While BWP uses horror film motifs to reflect on visual technologies, Open Water’s use of suspense conventions to create a much more philosophical, almost existential, series of reflections (see Roger Ebert’s review on this point).

The film opens with Susan and Daniel preparing to leave for their vacation. There is some mild tension in their marriage, in part because both of them are so focused on their careers. The film opens with both of them on cell phones, talking to colleagues, before Daniel, waiting in the car, uses his phone to call his wife inside their house. But the film wisely de-emphasizes their marital tension for the most part, focusing instead on the lack of control they seem to have over their work lives. As David Edelstein points out (he also makes the Blair Witch comparison), these sequences are very effectively mundane, capturing the ordinariness of their lives in a fairly subtle way.

The couple arrives at an unspecified Caribbean island, and they begin to unwind, to relax just a little, and to separate themselves from the demands of their work obligations (Susan even declines the offer to check her email). The scuba scenes that follow are nicely done, with the couple playfully swimming underwater, admiring the harmless ocean creatures they encounter. Then, as Susan and Daniel resurface to climb back on the boat, they discover that the boat is gone, their isolation beautifully conveyed with a high-angle, extreme-long shot showing them completely surrounded by water, floating helplessly in a vast expanse of water.

For the last hour of film time, we are more or less left floating in the ocaen with Susan and Daniel. They know they are in danger, but, as Ebert notes, the ocean is relatively calm, and there’s nothing much to do but talk and wait. Gradually, the sense of danger begins to build. A jellyfish stings Susan. Sharks approach. They begin to feel thirsty. Daniel remembers information he learned watching the Discovery Channel and warns Susan against drinking the salt water of the ocean, and the couple talks to pass the time and ignore the growing threat they face. Their conversation is relatively banal as they try to pass the time, and while they fight briefly over who is to blame, that question quickly becomes irrelevant.

Wisely, the film rarely cuts away to the shore, choosing instead to maintain our identification with Susan and Daniel, leaving us uncertain of what’s happening on the shore, where one of the crew members gradually realizes that the two divers are missing. I found the ocean sequences completely fascinating (unlike James Berardinelli, who inexpicably found the dialogue “pretty pedantic,” and dsecribed the film’s last hour as occasionally “dull”). The “POV” shots, where the camera floats just a few inches above the ocean’s surface help create the powerful effect of isolation and helplessness. If anything, I felt these sequences should have been of even longer duration, to build the sense of dread even more effectively (one gripe here: the acapella music was a distraction and seemed to take away from the sense of isolation that the film was so careful to create, but then again, I’m not a big fan of most non-diegetic music).

There are two great moments in the film that are worth mention that I’d rather not reveal to people who haven’t seen the film, so click below the fold at your own risk, but for those readers who haven’t yet seen the film, I’d certainly recommend it.

First, the thunderstorm sequence was beautiflly done, one of the most effective moments in the film. For several seconds at a time, the screen was almost completely dark until the sky would be briefly illuminated by the lightning of a passing storm. This willingness to show a completely dark screen is a risky move, but it adds to the feeling of dread inspired by the film.

Second, Susan’s decision, after she realizes that Daniel has died, was very simply and starkly conveyed. Susan’s decision (and the way in which it was conveyed) completely floored me. Of course, we know that rescue efforts are in motion, that the helicopters may soon find Susan, but her decision to essentially commit suicide, is a powerful one. In that final moment, Susan does manage to take some control over her life, over the conditions that surround her. This ending is, by no means, comforting, and it’s impressive to find a genre-style film that is willing to take the risk of not comforting us at the end of the story.

6 Comments »

  1. bitchphd Said,

    August 14, 2004 @ 4:16 pm

    Ooh, thanks for the recommendation (and no, I didn’t read the spoilers)–the movie looked interesting to me, so maybe I will make a point of seeing it….

  2. Cassie Said,

    August 15, 2004 @ 6:25 am

    I had to memorize a poem for a class when I was in college (a practice, incidentally, that I think should be more widespread), and chose the first part of _The Waste Land_ in a large part for the line “Fear death by water.” I share the phobia of drowning, though mine is almost totally inexplicable.

    I still know it, come to think of it. I like that.

  3. chuck Said,

    August 15, 2004 @ 11:02 am

    Was hoping someone would comment on the Eliot allusion….

    I had to memorize sections of a poem several times, mostly in high school. One year, everyone (except me and one or two others) decided to memorize “The Raven.” I like Poe, but I’ve never been so sick of a prom in my life….

    I can only remember lines here and there, but I like being able to draw from that set of lines. Memorizing sections of text was also my primary study strategy for grad school exams: because I could quote extensively from the texts, I had a great set of evidence that I could apply to any number of possible essay questions.

  4. Mel Said,

    August 15, 2004 @ 11:17 pm

    Great comments on the film, Chuck — I thought the ending was really well handled. Your comments raise another context for the film that I’d sort of forgotten until now — the recent vogue for handbooks (and tv shows) telling you how to survive all kinds of things, as a kind of cultural response to escalating global terror…his trying to remember what he knows about shark attacks (just as the audience is relying on their prior knowledge) aptly captures the impossibility of Being Prepared — no matter what government-sponsored billboards and advertisements would have us think.

  5. chuck Said,

    August 15, 2004 @ 11:28 pm

    Great point. I hadn’t rteally thought about the “Be Prepared” subtext as connected to the War on Terror. Also a nice connection to the audience response.

    [Danger! Spoiler!] To name an example, I found myself thinking that the knife was going to cause them to get eaten. I thought the husband was going to stab a shark and attract attention when the shark started bleeding. I’m glad the film subverted my expectations on that point. In a weird sort of way, I felt relieved when the knife dropped impotently to the bottom of the sea.

  6. Antony Said,

    November 21, 2006 @ 4:29 am

    I have a fear of drowning because once when I was very little a boy put my head into a bucket of water for what seemed like a long time until my dad rushed out to get me out and smack the boy. The other time I nearly drowned was when I was older and I was inside a swimming pool and this boy who was my friend until he closed the covers on the swimming pool so I couldn’t get out and was gasping for air all the time.

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