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Bare-bones ‘Open Water’ doesn't quite wash

The independent film feels like ‘Blair Witch’ on the high seas. By Christy Lemire
/ Source: The Associated Press

Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water comes “Open Water,” the bare-bones story of a young married couple left stranded in the middle of the ocean while scuba diving on vacation.

Husband-and-wife filmmakers Chris Kentis and Laura Lau avoided special effects, instead choosing to shoot 20 miles off the coast amid the sea life, including real sharks — a refreshing change in this day and age of cacophonous, computer-generated nonsense.

The film’s low-budget aesthetic is admirable and, at times, startlingly effective. But it’s hard to shake the feeling that you’re watching “The Blair Witch Project” on the high seas, especially during the film’s draggy stretches. (You may find yourself looking at your watch a few times, and the movie’s only 79 minutes long.)

It’s easy, however, to understand how “Open Water” has generated buzz after playing at film festivals, including Sundance. That seems to be the ideal setting to enjoy the eeriness and suspense of its man-vs.-nature conflict — at midnight, in a packed theater, with a bunch of other people who love independent film and may or may not be slightly buzzed.

Pretty much the entire movie consists of Susan (the beautiful Blanchard Ryan) and her husband, Daniel (Daniel Travis), bobbing up and down in the water after their dive group leader miscounts, thinks he has everyone back on board the boat, and motors away.

Their initial annoyance gives way to boredom (they kill time playing word games) followed by panic once the jellyfish start stinging them. Then the sharks begin to circle — but calling “Open Water” the second coming of “Jaws” is a serious reach. It simply doesn’t have enough narrative momentum to be considered an instant horror classic.

“Open Water” also attempts to play as a domestic drama — a portrait of a typical marriage weakened by work stresses and insufficient quality time. Long-held resentments begin to bubble up the longer they stay in the water: Daniel insists it’s Susan’s fault, for example, that they’re on this vacation and not in a different place at a different time because her job as a TV sports producer is so demanding and unpredictable. She snaps back at him, “I wanted to go skiing!” — a line that eases the tension and breaks up the argument with much-needed comic relief.

Even this aspect of the film feels a bit too cursory, though, perhaps because “Open Water” is so brief.

Kentis and Lau do take time, though, to craft a surprising, elegant ending. We won’t give it away — the studio asked us not to, and for the record we wouldn’t have anyway on principle. We’ll just let you dive in on your own, and see how you feel when you rise to the surface.