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Muddy Waters

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Sometimes movies actually teach you something. When I was younger, I imagined that I'd someday try a couple of outdoor activities I never have. In graduate school in the 1970s, I often backpacked in California's High Sierra, and though I once badly sprained my ankle and had to hobble for miles out of the back country, I still presumed I'd eventually try mountain climbing -- probably Mount Rainier, maybe even Mount McKinley. I somehow managed to sustain that presumption all the way into middle age. Then I saw the movie Everest by David Breashears, Stephen Judson and Greg MacGillivray (and promptly read Jon Krakhauer's book Into Thin Air) and my passion to try something so needlessly dangerous dried up like the floor of Death Valley.

Still, I clung to the notion that I'd someday find the time for a Caribbean vacation to scuba dive. But now writer-director Chris Kentis' Open Water has convinced me that the pleasures of going eye-to-eye with a tropical fish are pretty much diminished by the dangers of turning into shark food. Regrettably, beyond such public service, I can't say a whole lot for this low-budget picture.

Based on actual events, Open Water is the story of Susan (Blanchard Ryan) and Daniel (Daniel Travis), a contemporary professional couple who take a quickie vacation from their busy lives to bask in the Bahamian sun and check out the aquatic splendors 60 feet under the ocean blue. Things seem to go splendidly. The couple is beautiful. The resort is luxurious. The fruit drinks are plentiful. The fish where they dive are as cute as the undersea creatures in Finding Nemo. Then the unthinkable happens. Daniel and Susan surface to discover that their dive boat is nowhere to be found.

The purpose of Open Water is to demonstrate the horror of being rendered utterly powerless. When Daniel and Susan pop up from the deep to find themselves abandoned, they are able to spot several other boats at different points on the horizon, but Daniel argues that the boats are too far away to be reached by swimming and that they are better off by staying put to wait for the return of their own boat. This is a perfectly reasonable argument, except that it doesn't account for an ocean current that quickly pushes them they know not where. Their diving equipment enables them to float easily, so they aren't in any immediate danger. Boats keep coming relatively near them, but they are not spotted and their cries die out unheard. Morning turns to afternoon. They are stung by jellyfish. They spot shark fins. They grow hungry and thirsty. Susan becomes seasick from bobbing endlessly in the gentle swells. Afternoon gives way to dusk, then to the terror of dark as nearly a whole day has gone by since they were deserted. And dammit if they aren't menaced by a thunderstorm as well.

I was not quite convinced that Daniel and Susan could remain calm as long as they manage. Their controlled demeanor is wise but not quite believable, and my favorite part of the film arrives when they finally lose control. Daniel begins to rail against the unfairness of their circumstances, and when Susan chides him, they turn their wrath on each other. She had wanted to go skiing. He was forced into booking the vacation he did because she had concentrated too hard on her work and given him to little notice of a time she might be able to get away. This passage rings with awful truth about how stress and frustration can produce wrongful animosity toward the ones we love. I'll also admit, however, that the couple's give and take left me and other audience members laughing at the profound absurdity of their fighting, all the while I wondered if this was the response director Kentis had in mind.

Aside from this one passage, though, I can only credit Open Water with the slight surprise of its end. In the final analysis, there's just not much movie one can make about a couple bobbing on the ocean for 24 hours, and this one seems over-long at a scant 79 minutes. Though I know that a New Orleans couple was actually left at sea by a scuba-diving boat, this film's account of how that might have happened is weak to the point of bald contrivance. Kentis' script needed to make us care for Susan and Daniel rather more than it manages. We actually get to know them very little. On the night before their dive trip, something seems left out when the couple prepares to make love and Susan abruptly declares she's not in the mood. I'm seldom one to complain about this, but actress Ryan's full-frontal nudity in that abortive scene seems particularly gratuitous. In sum, scuba diving is dangerous in more ways than one, and you can take that from me and save yourself the expense of this less than engrossing picture.

Daniel (Daniel Travis) and Susan (Blanchard Ryan) get in too deep during their Caribbean vacation in Open Water.
  • Daniel (Daniel Travis) and Susan (Blanchard Ryan) get in too deep during their Caribbean vacation in Open Water.

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