I don’t always remember specific experiences I had watching movies in the theater, but I distinctly remember seeing Open Water at a multiplex in the suburbs of Chicago in August 2004. Shot on digital video on a budget of only $120,000 and featuring no recognizable actors, the movie had nevertheless managed to secure a nationwide release from Lions Gate after a successful premiere at Sundance. It was one of the most-hyped movies that summer. The ubiquitous ads promised a tense, nail-biting survival thriller about two very unfortunate tourists who find themselves stranded in the middle of the ocean, menaced by sharks.
(WARNING: Serious, all-encompassing spoilers for Open Water ahead.)
The audience at my screening didn’t seem to get what they had paid for. Sure, Open Water had all the basic elements promised in the trailer – the stranded tourists, the ocean, even the sharks – but it was not exactly a fun, fast-paced, late-summer thrill ride. Instead, the film was gloomy, static, and almost devoid of action. Most of the running time was devoted to the couple talking, arguing, and scanning the horizon for a rescue boat that would never arrive. Pretty early on, the people in my theater started grumbling, yawning, and shifting in their seats. By the last 10 minutes or so, as it became clear that no happy ending was possible for these hapless protagonists, some of my fellow ticket buyers were openly heckling and booing. Several walked out.
I’m sure that disastrous screening in 2004 affected my opinion of the movie, made by the husband and wife team of Chris Kentis and Laura Lau and inspired by a true story. I dismissed Open Water as a soggy ripoff of The Blair Witch Project, another low-fi, no-star affair that had muscled its way to box office glory on the strength of a clever, relentless marketing campaign. It’s worth noting that, even today, Open Water only rates a 5.7 at the IMDb and has a miserable 33% audience approval rating at Rotten Tomatoes.
Recently, though, I caught Open Water on television and found myself not only completely fascinated but also emotionally moved by it. All the things I’d disliked about this movie back in 2004, including the graininess of the digital video, the banality of the dialogue, and the humdrum performances, now worked in its favor. I was stunned. Had there really been a master class in philosophy hidden inside this dumb shark movie all this time?
As I now see it, Open Water is about two very unfortunate but otherwise perfectly ordinary people, harried suburbanites David (Daniel Travis) and Susan (Blanchard Ryan), who accidentally learn their true place in the universe. From childhood, we are taught by parents, teachers, churches, and popular culture, that we are important and special and that our lives have meaning. As human beings, we take pride in our civilization and like to feel that we are fully integrated into it. But Open Water dares to suggest that our lives do not have inherent value or meaning and that our connection to the rest of society is incredibly fragile and could be taken away from us at any time. God, if he even exists, is completely indifferent to us.
This is a lot to process when you’re watching cable at two in the afternoon on a Thursday, which is just where this movie is apt to turn up nowadays.
The plot, at least, is stock simple. David and Susan are scuba-diving with other tourists while on vacation at an unnamed tropical resort when they take too much time underwater and are inadvertently left behind by the boat. Once the boat leaves, Open Water practically becomes Waiting for Godot at Sea, only even less populated. Travis and Ryan carry the entire rest of the movie, interacting only with each other. Neither one is exactly a dazzling thespian, but their very ordinariness gives Open Water a sense of plausibility that most movies fail to achieve. David and Susan never come off as characters in a story. Instead, they seem like two perfectly unremarkable people in a highly remarkable situation. This sense of reality is further heightened by the director’s use of slightly fuzzy digital video. It’s easy to imagine that you’re watching people’s private vacation footage.
The script, like the acting, is notable for its homely, clumsy normalcy. Susan and David do not make profound or clever statements during Open Water. They strategize, bicker, complain, and talk about trivia to keep their minds off the nightmare surrounding them, but never does it feel like a screenwriter is responsible for their words. By far, the movie’s best scene occurs when David snaps and simply starts screaming at no one in particular, just for the sake of screaming. It’s possible he wants God to hear him, but the only person within earshot is Susan. This leads to a petty argument between the two as to which of them is at fault for their predicament. At one point, Susan whines, “I wanted to go skiing!” (I’m pretty sure that line elicited gales of laughter at the theater in 2004. It makes me laugh even now.)
Open Water isn’t much of a shark movie, at least not in the sense that the ads promised. The toothy gray predators do poke their fins out of the water a few times, and Susan and David cringe and cower appropriately, but the first actual shark attack occurs about 60 minutes into this 81-minute movie. The truth is, the real enemy here is isolation. David and Susan are surrounded by miles and miles of open water. It’s a maddening, seemingly infinite blank canvas. Even without sharks, stingrays, or other undersea nasties, our heroes would be utterly doomed out here, helpless against the current. What’s even more frustrating is that boats appear in the far distance many, many times, and an airplane flies over their heads, too, but there’s no way to contact or reach them. David and Susan are exiled from the civilized world, and yet it seems so tantalizingly close.
The protagonists of Open Water are not heroes, so they do not die like heroes. This was the element that disappointed me most when the movie was new, but it’s what I admire the most now. It’s the single boldest choice by the filmmakers, and it helps keep the movie honest. Open Water is sometimes categorized as a horror movie (since video stores tend not to have an “existential dread” section), but the characters in horror movies tend to die in spectacular, highly cinematic ways. There’s none of that here. By the film’s end, the two leads have been through the stages of grief (depression, anger, bargaining, denial) and have finally arrived at acceptance. Or, more specifically, Susan has. David expires sometime during the night, so we are denied seeing the exact moment of his passing. The next morning, Susan clings to his corpse before finally setting him adrift. (This moment provoked groans from the audience at my screening.) Acquiescing to her fate, she then lets herself drown before she can be attacked by sharks. It’s an eerily quiet, understated moment. Even the music cuts out. The movie ends abruptly at this point, save for a grimly funny coda in which the couple’s bright yellow, waterproof camera is retrieved from the body of a recently-caught shark.
Revisiting Open Water was a revelation. I’d remembered it merely as a dopey, somewhat sloppily made shark movie from the early 2000s. This time around, though, I was haunted and unnerved by it. I keep thinking about one of David’s tirades: “If it were not for your job, we would not have thrown our plan out the window, rushed around at the last minute, and settled on this fucking trip. We would be at home in the middle of our hectic lives, which right now sounds like heaven to me.” Imagine that. The rest of us are living in heaven, and we don’t even know it.