Cinema Signal:

The Jaws of Death:
Sharks as Predator, Man as Prey

. "Open Water"

This is the stuff nightmares are made of. It's also a lesson for shoe-string filmmakers in how low budgets need not mean low dramatic effect. This gripping tale demonstrates how wise it is to take a scenario full of natural fright and foreboding and turn it into a tight thematic thriller. Writer-director-co-cinematographer-editor Chris Kentis and partner-producer-co-cinematographer Laura Lau had one more thing going for them: their story is based on an actual occurrence.

Daniel and Susan (Daniel Travis and Blanchard Ryan) are a young, yuppie couple whose marriage is feeling the strains of work pressure and, wisely, take a much needed vacation. They've decided on an island holiday where, as certified scuba divers, they can adventure out to sea for a spot of underwater exploration.

The dive boat is full. Once anchored miles from shore, the deck comes alive as the divers don their gear and plunge off the stern. As each buddy team jumps off, a crewman takes count. Daniel and Susan are among the 20 that dive into the tropical depths. But one man, who apparently came alone, failed to bring his face mask and mutters in annoyance as he's obliged to remain behind.

One of the divers, however, can't clear her ears and therefore can't make it down to the reef. She and her buddy return to the boat where our lone, fretting diver, a buff, insistent type, asks to borrow her face mask and her buddy and finally makes his dive. But, he's not counted. This oversight explains how Daniel and Susan are considered returned while they're still on the bottom.

The couple finally surfaces to find the dive boat not where they expected it to be. After some discussion about where, exactly they are, and whether they should try swimming to one the boats they see at some distance, their drift in the current removes that choice.

They argue about faults, about what they can or should do, about when they'll be noticed missing and rescued, about their marriage, their love for each other, their tensions. Time goes on. They float, stranded. And, suddenly, they spot their first shark. As the day wears on, more appear, surrounding them, playing with them, regarding them as potential lunch.

Daniel pulls his knife out of its scabbard and holds it in readiness. Susan develops a sickness. When she gets over it Daniel is stung by jelly fish. But the overriding feeling as night approaches is sheer, sustained panic at their situation. And, we are there with them. Cold, frightened, weak, tossed around like so much flotsam, miles from shore.

With night we hope for respite, but the sharks don't sleep.

The degree to which this film forces you to identify and empathize has much to do with the natural performances by two unknown actors and the clarity of the narrative flow, which has much to do with a very well thought out exploration of the slow adaptation to abandonment and distress.

As you become mesmerized by its developments, you might like to consider that the actors spent over 120 hours in the water and that there was no digital image making involved. A few people out to sea, immersed amidst killer animals, made a movie that pumps with authenticity and creative storytelling. If it can be faulted it's on the difficulty of sustaining the two-people in one situation simplicity of it to feature length, even at 79 minutes.

The filmmaker calls it a cautionary tale. Yes. If you dive off a boat, make certain not only that you're counted, but that your unique individuality is noted by the crew, even if you have to act bizarre in order to make your presence register. (See if you get left behind if you're really bizarre).

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner,
                                                  Jules Brenner  
                                 (Certified L.A. County dive instructor)   

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