Nearly 30 years after ‘Jaws,’ ‘Open Water’ gives us a new reason to stay out of the water

Blanchard Ryan (left) and Daniel Travis struggle to keep their heads above water in 'Open Water'
Blanchard Ryan (left) and Daniel Travis struggle to keep their heads above water in ‘Open Water’

Writer/director Chris Kentis makes a splash with his second film, a low-budge thriller about a couple left stranded in shark-infested waters when their diveboat inadvertently heads back to shore without them.

Released on DVD December 28th, this digitally-shot feature, acquired by Lion’s Gate at last year’s Sundance, tells the story of Susan (Blanchard Ryan) and Daniel (Daniel Travis), an everyday couple desperately trying to pull themselves away from the pace and pressures of their stressful lives, and take a Caribbean vacation. Little goes as planned however, and the nightmare culminates when they surface from their dive to find that their boat is nowhere in sight.

At this point, experienced and inexperienced divers (like myself) ask how something like this is even possible — dive boat operators count their divers more often than teachers count pre-schoolers on a field trip — and Susan asks exactly that, hard-pressed to believe they could have actually been left behind. It does happen though. “More often than you think,” Daniel tells her as he relates stories he’s read in dive magazines. And in reality, he’s right. The film itself is based on the true story of Tom and Eileen Lonergan — two divers who were never found after a boat accidentally left them stranded in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef in 1998.

The heat is scorching. You’re blinded by the sun’s reflection on the water. Bobbing at the surface induces nausea. You’re dehydrated, hungry, and exhausted. And there are sharks — oh yeah, did I mention the sharks? So what would you do? Start swimming? Or stay where you and hope you don’t drift further away?

Sharks are everywhere in 'Open Water'
Sharks are everywhere in ‘Open Water’

After some arguing, Daniel and Susan agree to conserve energy and stay put. Surely the dive master has realized they’re missing, right? But as time passes, the hope of being found wanes, and Susan and David run the gamut of emotions. They falter between fits of irrationality and fear to moments of hope; from needing each other, to needing to blame each other. They lose control and gain it back. They scream. They whisper. They keep silent. In superbly written dialogue, they do exactly what each of us would do in the same situation — they try to control the uncontrollable.

From the moment Susan pulls off her mask and says, “Daniel… where’s the boat?” there’s not a second of reprieve for the audience. For the next hour, we are as helpless as they are — our hearts pound and adrenaline rushes as we hope and pray that the boat comes back.

Just when you think you’re blood pressure has peaked, night falls and the screen goes black. Pitch black. Black as the night in the middle of the ocean. Your auditory senses become keen. You listen, hearing only what they hear… the sounds of a tropical storm rolling in, the splashing of tails and dorsal fins, the pounding of your own heart… and it’s not over yet.

Almost 30 years after Spielberg scared movie-goers away from the beaches, Kentis gives us reason to think twice about donning a wetsuit and descending into the ocean’s depths. If you were scared to dive before, you now have justification. If you’re like me and thought something like this could never happen, you may stay a little closer to that anchor line on your next dive. Unless, of course, you like experiencing that twinge of fear, that hint of uneasiness, that uncomfortable vastness of open water…

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