Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Open Water

Open Water is an amazing film.

It's not perfect. It's an indie movie shot on digital video, and the movie was made over a span of three years because the crew could only film on weekends away from their day jobs. It's also not a typical disaster movie or killer-animal film, and if you're looking for a happy ending, you won't find one. But in terms of steadily growing mental horror, it's brilliant. I'm actually relieved I didn't watch this on the big screen; I'd have had nightmares.

Susan and Daniel are two stressed but well-to-do people who decide they need a vacation. Leaving their SUV and cell phones (though they bring their laptop), they go on vacation. Sun, sand, surf and scuba-diving. Part of the latter is a trip out into the ocean with eighteen other tourists, where they all go on a group dive.

One of the crewmen of the boat hosting the dive keeps track of the passengers by making a tick on a clipboard as each passenger climbs out of the ocean. However, one guy has forgotten his mask so he doesn't dive, but he sits with the returning passengers anyway and the crewman makes a tick corresponding to him. Then the guy borrows a mask and goes for a dive, so when he returns to the boat he's counted for a second time. Since he's taken another returned passenger with him as a diving buddy, that guy gets counted twice too.

The upshot of it all is that Daniel and Susan, who have separated from the main group, are deep below the surface when the crewman counts twenty ticks and says, "Got everybody!"

No, I have no idea why they couldn't simply do a head count - there are twenty passengers, not two hundred. Or better still, get the list of names (you know the names of people traveling on your boat, right?) and call them out or have people sign off beside their names. If I hadn't known that this was based on a true story of two people who did get left behind by a boat, I would have found it very difficult to suspend disbelief at this point.

The filmmaking at this point is good, though. When Daniel and Susan are taking photographs of all the colorful fish, the music is cheerful and light-hearted. As divers return one by one and you realize something's wrong, the music stops. As the crew is pulling up the ladder and preparing to leave, the music is very low-key in the background but ominous nevertheless, and suddenly all the fish have disappeared. Daniel and Susan look around, realizing they're alone in this vast blue world, and they communicate with hand signals that it's time to surface. They're still early, since the crew said they would leave at 10:30 and it's 10:25.

They surface and there's no boat nearby. There are two boats on the horizon, both well out of swimming distance and both too far to catch a glimpse of the two people frantically waving to them.

Daniel and Susan try to stay calm. This is just part of their adventure, and soon enough their boat will come back for them.

"What if they don't know we're missing?"
"There's no way... Our stuff is on board. We have their tanks!"

Unfortunately for them, the world's most incompetent tour guides don't do a head count as the passengers disembark, don't check the boat to make sure everyone's personal belongings are off it and don't even count their own tanks to make sure these have all been returned. If this is normal operating procedure, the surprising thing isn't that two divers were left behind; it's that this hasn't happened more often.

Though they quickly realize that they're drifting away from the dive site, carried on the current, Daniel and Susan try to stay calm and play a six-degrees-of-separation game. That comes to an end when jellyfish sting them and a fin flashes above the waves for a second.

One of the things I like most about this film is that the sharks are just animals in their natural environment, doing what animals naturally do, rather than swimming around with a KILL ALL HUMANS mentality. The film never focuses on them for too long, so we see them in quick glimpses just as Susan and Daniel might.

On the surface, there's nothing but waves. Below the surface, something is coming closer - and that something is far more at home in the sea than you are.

The film plays brilliantly on this. "I don't know what's worse, seeing them or not seeing them," Susan says at one point, and although I love sharks, some of those sequences scared the hell out of me. The grey reef sharks in the film are perhaps five or six feet long, but they gather in groups. At one point Susan falls asleep after waiting several hours for rescue, so she's floating on her aqualungs with just her head and chest out of the water. Daniel dozes off too and they drift apart. The scene shifts to an overhead view and we see Susan in the water, her eyes closed, as the shapes of sharks move just beneath her.

And these were real sharks. No CGI, no mechanical models. The real things, swimming a few feet under her.

Another thing the film does very well is to show just how helpless we are once the trappings of civilization are gone. With literally nothing between them and the ocean except for their wetsuits, Daniel and Susan are, effectively, doomed. They can't control where they're going or see what's beneath them. They can't anchor themselves to anything solid or even scratch a mark to show that they were once there and alive.

This is in stark contrast to a scene from the start of the film where they're in their hotel room, and Susan is bundled up protectively in a sheet while Daniel stalks a mosquito. He finally corners it and whaps it. These two are possibly the last people in the world who should be lost at sea. Then again, it would take superhuman ability and luck to survive under those circumstances.

And they have no luck. No friendly dolphins push them to shore, no ships pass close enough to see them, not even a convenient piece of driftwood floats by. Something takes a small bite out of Susan's leg and fish begin to feed on the exposed flesh.

Mentally as well as physically, they give way under the strain. Daniel finally has a tirade where he screams, "We paid for this! We paid those incompetent fuckers to drop us in the middle of the goddamned ocean!" but the argument quickly spirals down into whose fault it is that they're lost. Daniel's, because he spent too much time looking at an eel. Susan's, because her job meant they had to settle for this vacation.

By the time a storm begins, though, they're both too worn out and too terrified to quarrel any further. Night falls and the sharks hunt at that time, as sharks are wont to do. Daniel, after being bitten, starts to pray but then breaks down in sobs. The ocean doesn't care about either. And if I thought it was frightening to be alone in the water, it's far worse to be alone in the water at night. The filmmakers don't illuminate anything except what's revealed by the occasional flash of lightning, and the terror is all the more visceral as a result.

Finally, the next morning someone discovers their belongings on the boat and a search begins. By then, though, it's too late.

Open Water isn't perfect. The start of the film is slow-moving, though there's a nude scene thrown in as if to reward the audience for persisting that far. There's also a sequence in the middle which focuses entirely on water rippling and flowing, and this goes on for a little too long. We get it. There is a lot of moving water in this film. But the rest of it is gripping. And if I ever decide to go scuba diving, I'm going to do so very close to land.

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