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The Baltimore Sun

Movie review: 'Open Water'

Tribune Arts Critic

3 stars (out of 4)

Could a premise be any more harrowing?

A yuppie couple, in the midst of a scuba-diving vacation, emerges from beneath the sea, only to find their tour boat inexplicably gone.

There they are alone, afloat in open sea, with nothing but water everywhere, in every direction. Nothing, that is, but water, harmless ocean life--and sharks.

"Open Water" could well do for scuba diving what "Jaws" did for beachside swimming and "Psycho" for the household shower. Shot directly with handheld digital cameras on a miniscule budget, a success at the Sundance Festival earlier this year, "Open Water" invites comparisons with that earlier Sundance shocker, "The Blair Witch Project."

But this new movie, by writer-director Chris Kentis ("Grind"), is both more literal and scarier than that somewhat overrated boogey-man allegory. Though inspired by an actual episode, "Open Water" is mostly the product of the filmmaker's imagination, a taut, 79-minute fright fest peppered with enough payoffs and glossed with a mournful philosophic overlay. The deep has never been so creepy, nor, in some ways, the creeps so deep.

Perfect, it isn't. For all its cleverness and originality, the movie doesn't completely solve the dilemma of fleshing out surprises from its essentially one-note premise: We're abandoned, we're alone, we're starving and we're shark bait, attracting those deadly killers with an intermittent, accelerating peril. (Too early an all-out attack, obviously, and the movie's done in five minutes or so.) In fact, we're told repeatedly, sharks don't automatically gravitate to humans for food. Instead, "Open Water" is a slow drip, but one all the more intense for its Gothic minimalism and its underlying parable of naturalistic determinism: It's no fun to fool with Mother Nature.

As in "Blair Witch," there's an effort to blame the characters' fate on their own selfish shortcomings. As glimpsed in their California driveway about to depart, Susan (Blanchard Ryan) and Daniel (Daniel Travis) are preoccupied career types, too busy for leisure and the subtler needs of each other. Even in their island idyll before the scuba trip, they seem already adrift, unable to muster an effective lovemaking session. Throughout, Kentis combines this air of social mediocrity with the shortcomings of modern technology--the boats, planes, automobiles and daily gizmos that won't do you any good should you find yourself back at nature's mercy, alone in the middle of the ocean.

Okay, that's not the deepest metaphysical construct of our day, but it's good enough, and throughout Kentis throws in some moments of lean, lyrical spiritualism (shots of shimmering water accompanied by sacred music). The tragedy stems not from a bang but a whimper, not from grand failures but from minor skirmishes, bits of ill temper, pettiness and banal neglect.

After a bookkeeping glitch on the boat sets up their abandonment, the couple takes to the challenge with false hope, enduring the stings of jellyfish and each other's aggravated advice. ("Don't drink the salt water, it'll make you sick.") They bicker, at first with typical pique and increasingly with hysteria as the hours evaporate and gradually any sense of hope. The story evades a predictable ending with a brilliant simplicity, moving with horrific inevitability to an ironic, arresting finish.

Though the digital cinematography and matter-of-fact acting both recall reality TV, "Open Water" benefits in the end from both its blunt style and the skilled realism of Ryan and Travis, ordinary folks trapped in one whale of a primal nightmare.

"Open Water"

Written, directed and edited by Chris Kentis; photographed by Kentis and Laura Lau; music by Graeme Revell; produced by Lau. A Lion's Gate release; opens Friday. Running time: 1:19. MPAA rating: R (language and nudity).

Susan - Blanchard Ryan
Daniel - Daniel Travis
Seth - Saul Stein
Estelle - Estelle Lau

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