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Wednesday, June 22, 2005
How deep is your love?
It was 30 years ago this week that Steven Spielberg's "Jaws" opened and scared a generation into staying on the beaches and out of the water for an entire summer. It's hard to imagine these days, but that was an era when the power of films to terrify was still building to its peak, when "Psycho" had people locking their bathroom doors, and "Dressed to Kill" had people hesitant to enter elevators alone.
As far as fear of the deep goes, nothing since Spielberg's seminal shark flick has been as scary, not "The Abyss" nor "Leviathan," and certainly not "Jaws 3-D." But now, out of the indie sector, comes a low-budget, no-frills flick called "Open Water," which eschews special effects and robot carcharodons in favor of more "Blair Witch"-style verite chills.
The set-up is almost "high-concept" in its simplicity. A couple, both over-worked yuppies, head off to a unnamed tropical beach for a long overdue vacation. They're both stressed-out, still stuck to their cell phones and Internet connections. The guy, Daniel (Daniel Travis), wants sex; the girl, Susan (Blanchard Ryan), is too stressed to get in the mood. No doubt, more than a few Tokyoites of this sekkusuresu generation will recognize this situation, and the couple's solution -- a few days of sea and sun to set things right.
People who like to unwind on the Thai island of Koh Tao should just tune out right here; this film's definitely not for you. For what happens is, Dan and Susan go off for a leisurely dive that turns into an agonizing nightmare. They go out with a group of tourists on a diving boat, to a place well out of sight of any land. They stay underwater, away from the rest of the group, a little too long, and when they finally surface, they find their boat is gone and they're stranded. (The tour operator screwed up his count, and doesn't even realize that he's left anyone behind.)
Dan and Susan recognize the peril they're in, and do what any couple would do in this situation: bicker. "Did you get us lost?," she accuses; "No!" answers Dan, "I'm 90 percent sure." "Why only 90 percent?" she shoots back. " 'Cos the boat's not here," replies Dan, matter-of-factly, argument won.
From this point on, the film stays with the couple in the water, shooting from above as they struggle to glimpse ships on the horizon, or from below, as the menacing shadows of sharks -- real sharks, not robots, as noted before -- start to circle. You've got to admire the cast: They endured 120 hours of shooting in these conditions, and Travis even had a bite taken out of his leg by a barracuda on day one of the shoot. Needless to say, both actors were required to sign waivers before shooting that absolved the filmmakers of responsibility for any incidents.
Director Chris Kentis aims for a reality-TV sort of look, shooting on DV with no set-dressing or lighting, and encouraging rather mundane, "real" performances from his leads. The film veers from utter boredom and banality -- like when Daniel describes their situation by saying "This really sucks," or the way they play the memory game "Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon" to kill the time -- to moments of stark terror, as the two are harassed by jellyfish and barracuda, before finally facing those sharks that are closing in.
There are moments of accidental, though horribly black humor as well; Daniel reassuringly coos, "We're gonna be fine," as three shark fins break water to put a period on his sentence. The best bit, however, comes when the two are at their wit's end, blood seeping into the water and attracting the attention of sharks, and Susan screeches, "I wanted to go skiing!" Yeah, it's all his fault.
The film lags at times, and comes with a depressingly bleak ending, but is satisfyingly scary in parts. In this age of CG and showing everything, often in ridiculous detail, Kentis reverts to the terror of the unknown, and killer reaction shots. There's something truly frightening about the situation, of being utterly helpless and burdened by tanks, in a vast expanse with no rescue on the way, and predators waiting to strike at any time from points unseen. Kentis also captures something of the ridiculousness of modern man, who can fly like a bird to a country halfway around the globe, swim like a fish exploring the deepest sea, then exclaim, peevishly, upon being stranded, "This isn't supposed to happen!"
Rule No. 1 of Nature, dude: "S*** happens."