Like so many movies before it, Open Water claims to be "based on a true story." The thing is, the story it's based on ain't much of a story. On Jan. 25, 1998, Tom and Eileen Lonergan went scuba-diving off the Great Barrier Reef. While they were down there, swimming with the fishes, their charter boat took off without them, having screwed up the head count. Tom and Eileen were never heard from again, unless you count the inflatable dive jackets that washed ashore several weeks later or the dive slate -- a device that allows divers to communicate underwater -- that some fishermen happened upon several months after that. The message on the dive slate: "Please help us or we will die, January 26, 8:00 A.M." End of story.
And beginning of Open Water, which isn't so much based on the Lonergans' story as inspired by it, if "inspired" is even the right word to use in such a situation. The husband-and-wife filmmaking team of Chris Kentis and Laura Lau has taken what happened to the Lonergans and fleshed it out just enough to call it a movie. The writing seems closer to transcription. The acting seems closer to improvisation. The cinematography suggests a background in wedding videos. And the effect of all this "amateurishness" is a film that seems both exploitative and -- what's the word I'm looking for? -- majestic. From the mundane details of a tragedy at sea, Open Water puts us in touch with the eternal mysteries.
Gus Van Sant did something similar with last year's Gerry, which sends a couple of guys wandering around the desert, where they proceed to get lost. Mother Nature, in all her implacable cruelty, slowly saps them of their strength, their sanity, their bodily fluids. And Van Sant just watches it all happen, like a vulture. But there's a mystical element in Gerry that's missing in Open Water. Susan (Blanchard Ryan) and Daniel (Daniel Travis) don't lose their minds while drifting with the current hour after hour, sharks rubbing up against their legs out of curiosity or hunger. They do what any of us would do: laugh, cry, play trivia games, scream for help, quarrel.
We learn just enough about these two to wonder whether they're going to make it, even if they do get rescued. Both seem like high-powered career types, her more than him. (It's like there's a cell phone permanently attached to her ear.) "This is supposed to be a vacation," they remind themselves while driving to the airport. And the vacation itself has been squeezed in, like a doctor's appointment. But there's affection between them as well -- affection and the easygoing familiarity of spouses who also happen to be friends. "Did you just pee?" Susan asks Daniel early on. Daniel, who learned everything he knows about the ocean from watching "Shark Week" on the Discovery Channel, says he was just trying to keep warm.
Hypothermia and dehydration immediately set to work when you've been stranded miles and miles from land, but it's sharks who always get top billing in Mother Nature's oceanographic Ways to Die. And Open Water went a step beyond that by using real sharks to harass its stars, who wore chain mail under their wetsuits. These were bull sharks and reef sharks, which don't tend to mistake humans for chum. And just to be on the safe side, they were fed a constant supply of tuna before and after the scenes were shot. But to those of us who can't tell a bull shark from a jellyfish, they get the job done, slicing through the water like steak knives, then disappearing for hours at a time. "Are they the bad kind?" Susan asks after an early sighting.
Steven Spielberg had to delay the appearance of the jaws in Jaws because he couldn't get the mechanical shark to work properly. And he had a legendarily difficult time filming on water, getting his shots to match. But the delay actually helped the movie, made it more suspenseful, and the mismatched shots were, at worst, a minor distraction. As for Kentis and Lau, they seem to have given up matching the shots, and it's often hard to tell from the images alone what time of day it is. They shot on digital video, which, in this case, doesn't have film's crispness and sharp colors, but that may have worked in the movie's favor, giving it what we used to call a documentary feel and now call a reality-show vibe.
After such couch-potato safaris as "Survivor" and "Fear Factor," audiences crave shows where real people are in real danger, and Open Water, though fictional, may be the next-best thing, a moment-by-moment account of a couple floating in a watery hell. There are no lessons to be drawn except that sometimes it takes impending death to remind us how much our loved ones mean to us. And there are no deep, complex emotions to feel except a kind of awe at how pitiless life can be when the umbilical cord of modern communications has been severed. However symbolically, Daniel and Susan ventured into the ocean's murky depths, and when they came back up, things were even murkier -- husband and wife, flotsam and jetsam.