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Bickering and doom, and then the sharks appear


Because of its extremely low budget, narrow focus, and to be honest, its rather rough visual quality, the new independent motion picture Open Water has already drawn comparisons to the most successful indy cheapie of them all, the overhyped, overrated, astonishingly profitable Blair Witch Project. Some wags, in fact, refer to the movie as The Blair Fish Project or perhaps, considering its subject, Jaws Lite.

At any rate, the film demonstrates the encouraging and even amazing fact that given contemporary technology and a good deal of pluck, luck, and perseverance, a determined director can actually make a feature-length movie for roughly the amount of money Steven Spielberg spends on his catering bill.

In Open Water the writer-director, Chris Kentis, wisely decided not to make a cheap imitation of some Hollywood pattern, applying a thin coat of gloss to relatively crude and ordinary materials. Instead he shaped his technique to fit his essentially simple subject and situation. Shot in video and transferred to film stock, the picture capitalizes on its own limitations, which necessitate just the sort of mobility and flexibility that lightweight and inexpensive equipment allows.

The small budget forces the director to employ a two-person cast, a static setting, a narrow focus, a tightly controlled dialectic of action, all of which also demand a stringently controlled method and approach, creating in effect a harmonious marriage of form and content.

Inspired by actual events, the picture deals with the experience of a young couple, played by Blanchard Ryan and Daniel Travis, whose idyllic Caribbean vacation turns into a nightmare. Apparently busy and successful at unspecified jobs --- the absence of any genuine contextual information, what Hollywood calls a back story, emphasizes the stark, existential purity of their plight --- they manage to schedule some time off, in part (again apparently) to repair some cracks in their relationship. That relationship meets its ultimate test when they go on a scuba diving excursion with other vacationers.

With a kind of determined step-by-step inevitability, the diving expedition gradually turns into a series of honest mistakes, acts of negligence, and ultimately, tragic blunders. Ryan and Travis stay below too long, surfacing after all the other divers clamber aboard. The boat crew miscounts the number of divers. Nobody notices the couple's clothing and possessions, stowed under a seat, or misses their air tanks, belts, fins, and diving gear. The boat consequently returns to its harbor without the couple, leaving them behind, floating together on the empty ocean.

From the moment of their abandonment, the picture turns into a curious version of a survival story, with the added element of a disintegrating relationship. Together they undergo a predictable range of emotional reactions, beginning with surprise and mild puzzlement and proceeding through anger, fright, and despair.

They blame each other for their predicament, bickering about who decided to take this particular trip at this particular time, who wanted to stay below to examine the undersea flora and fauna, and argue about what course to take once they understand their situation. Then the sharks appear.

Before the sharks turn up, the movie piles on a series of discomforts and dangers, obviously in order to enliven the static setting and the simple juxtaposition of two people bobbing in the water for an extended time. They understandably complain about cold, hunger, and thirst. Ryan gets seasick. They even make a few small jokes. The appearance of the sharks, however, intensifies the terror --- they now face, not only the awful prospect of isolation in an empty immensity of water and sky, but the urgent threat of attack, a prospect that seals the hopelessness of their plight.

The movie suggests the random quality of such an experience, the series of seemingly trivial events and actions that form a pattern of doom. Any single variation in the sequence, a change of mind, a slight alteration in the complicated tapestry of existence might have resulted in some other outcome.

The constant tight focus on commonplace objects --- a doorknob, a telephone, an alarm clock, car keys, etc. --- indicates a kind of specificity that links the action to a sequence of the utterly ordinary, as if all the humdrum bits and pieces of any life could somehow accumulate until they added up to a fatal sum, a destiny that evolves from a myriad of small steps and petty acts.

Despite the static central situation and the limited scope of visual possibilities, the director manages to maintain a high level of tension and suspense. The mobile camera, the frequent underwater shots, the tight close-ups overcome some of the apparent differences in light levels and locations, the often glaring inadequacies of the dialogue, and the generally crude and sadly unconvincing level of the acting.

Most important and gratifying, however, Open Water maintains a remarkable consistency in its approach and an admirable integrity of vision. Low budget notwithstanding, the picture works.

Open Water, starring Blanchard Ryan, Daniel Travis, Saul Stein; written, directed, and edited by Chris Kentis. Brockport Strand, Canandaigua Theatres, Cinemark Tinseltown, Culver Ridge Cinemas, Geneseo Theatres, Henrietta Cinema, Pittsford Plaza