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When the indie Open Water was first released it made an almighty splash for such a small production. Tapping into primitive fears about being out of your depth and alone at sea, the film scared enough audiences around the world to be a runaway success. But how does the little film that did big things look now it’s on the small screen?

Open Water
Film
Susan and Daniel are becoming workaholics. Trapped by the pressures of their careers and the demands of their lifestyle, they need to get away from it all. Quality time together, relaxing in each other’s company is what they need.

A hastily arranged trip out to the Caribbean should be just the ticket and before long they’re relaxing poolside, dining out and dipping in the local shops. As qualified open water divers they’re seasoned professionals with the scuba gear out at sea and so the buy a place on a tourists’ diving expedition for their ultimate R & R.

However, towards the end of a pleasant dive mixing it up with life in the tropical sea the crew on the crowded boat botch the head count as people climb back onboard. Soon, Susan and Daniel are re-surfacing without a boat to return to, twenty miles out to sea and all alone. Then the shark fins appear and the nightmare truly begins.

As far-fetched as this might at first sound, Open Water was inspired by the disappearance of Tom and Eileen Lonergan, who were left behind by their diving boat off the coast of the Great Barrier Reef in Australia in 1998. Husband and wife team director Chris Kentis and producer Laura Lau work hard to keep the extra-ordinary situation believable. Much of this initially lies in the quiet build-up to Susan and Daniel actually getting on the boat. The on-shore footage has a deliberately relaxed and unobtrusive with the (until now) unknown acting duo acting as any other tourist couple. They have an easy flowing dialogue that is mundanely ordinary and convincing. This is a credit both to Kentis’ screenplay and how he work-shopped with his actors in pre-production. They may have the good looks and good jobs, but they’re not perfect and nor is their relationship. They come across as a convincingly ordinary and this is carried over into their aquatic ordeal, which helps us identify with them and care about what happens.

When in the water, Kentis’ camera work is up close and personal with his protagonists. In the drink a lot of the time as well, the camera pitches and rolls on the waves with them, splashed occasionally, giving us brief glimpses beneath the surface. It creates a realistic and drifting feel and augments the couple’s sense of loneliness and despair.

The best bite of authenticity comes from the sharks. More up close and personal than the camera at times, Kentis filmed with real sharks around his actors out at sea. Smaller than Jaws but frightening enough and much more believable, they dart up close and flick above the surface with a natural menace. Bumping and pecking at the swimmers does recreate some effective moments of helplessness and terror. Deft editing from Kentis makes the most of these scenes.

Now Kentis and his wife Lau pretty much single-handedly brought this production into shore themselves, self-financing and shooting entirely on Sony digital cameras. On the big screen I felt this worked entirely, adding to the intimacy, realism and indie appeal of the piece. It successfully debunked any glossiness that the silver screen can inescapably bring to a movie. Alas, on the transfer to disc does not bring similar rewards.

Open Water
On the small screen, with picture quality more defined and noticeable, the digital work is even more apparent, almost overstated—so much so that it draws too much attention to itself, rather than adding to the piece, and at times, dare I say it, a home-movie quality to the picture seeps in (over-stepping from the preferable rugged, intimate and unpolished quality). Unfortunately, this reduces the viewing experience somewhat.

Channelling the primal fear of swimming out of depth and not knowing what might be right beneath your feet, Open Water delivered on its promise of an unnerving dip at the cinema. There were some real moments of shock and the terror built up remorselessly until that conclusion (contentious it may be, but I’m in favour of the ending, thought many may not be). You’ll still feel the tension at home and a first-timer will get the jolts, but all just on a smaller, less involving scale. Even the thunderstorm scene, a standout moment in theatres, feels far less overwhelming. Was all Open Water’s initial praise and credit justified? Yes. Is the DVD the best place to appreciate this? Sadly, in this case, I think not.


Video
This is a quality 16x9 widescreen transfer that, as mentioned above, may not do the film complete justice; and therein lies an irony. In the extras Kentis refers to the cameras he uses as practically basic ‘consumer cameras’ and, with the transfer faithful to the original, at times this shows. When staring into the darkening blue underwater some layer grading of colour becomes evident. Pixellation is also sometimes apparent along some edges, generally when a bright colour contrasts closely with dark. White spotting on blacks is evident too, although this actually seems confined to just one of the cameras. Similarly, some black flecking comes and goes across the lighter shots.

In this Open Water is very similar in quality to Blair Witch (numerous other comparisons have been made). However, that film deliberately played on its amateurish qualities. Open Water, with its aquatic vistas and open sea panoramas dividing your screen, tries and needs to be more cinematic. Digital cameras can achieve this, but Kentis didn’t have the budget of, say, Rodriguez (Once Upon a Time in Mexico). It’s certainly not all bad though and on the surface the calmer seas look an enticing Caribbean blue or dark mercurial surface.

Audio
The film’s minimal score and effects make excellent use of the 5.1 DD soundtrack. There’s ample opportunity for the regular bass rumblings, from boats and planes revving, subtler engine chugging and waves rolling and breaking, to divers splashing in and the ‘badooshing’ and muffled effects of going and being underwater. All convincingly evoke the Susan and Daniel’s experiences. Then, of course, there are the deep strings of danger that loom up on the impressive musical score throughout, ratcheting up the tension as best as possible.

The surrounds get a judicious working too, helping to create a watery feel with splashes and bubbles flicking around the camera’s POV. When the sound effects-enhanced jumps come, your system gives you an all-round wallop that’s impressive.

Extras
First off there’s a standard audio commentary from Kentis, Lau, Ryan and Travis. From the start it’s clear that they’ve grown very comfortable in each other’s company, a happy pay-off no doubt from spending so much time together over two and a half years. It’s more anecdotal than anything else, but does add to an understanding of how everyone worked together to during filming and how the piece further developed in post-production.

Open Water
A quick mention here about the simple but effective menus. In keeping with the film’s look and tone, the menu system is a moving image of the sea that splits your screen horizontally, with splashy sound effects and dialogue edits rounding it off. To access the extras means ‘going deeper’ and submerging, which is a nice touch. Chapter selection is also more inventive than most. Chronologically, you can select titled chapters up until Susan and Daniel enter the water. From then on the menu surfs out to open water with them where you select from the various time checks that break up the film.

A small shoal of extras fills out this pond. First the sprats, then the bigger catches:

Radio Spots—the lamest extra consists of these four UK radio adverts of varying length. As they tend to repeat the same selection of mainstream rave reviews, this just fills like filler. Moreover, the voiceover is strictly from Cliché School. Low, trying to be gravel-like, over-emphasising the each word’s last syllaBULLLL. With the four playing one after another they cannot help but sound comic.

TV Spots & Theatrical trailers—six in all, the first four also edited for the UK market. Voiceover man returns but is les intrusive now the images put him into relief. The most effective are the two narrative-free trailers that really punch the screen with energy.

Indie Essentials—subtitled ‘Gearing Up to Make a Marketable Movie’, this is an all too brief insight into how to make that breakout indie that’ll get the studios calling and the audiences clapping. Lions Gate Films’ Acquisitions bods, Chris Kentis and Laura Lau explain—in five minutes—that all it takes a great idea, a smart screenplay, a passionate filmmaker and not taking no for an answer.

Calm Before the Storm—a fifteen-minute featurette that’s split into small chapters that vaguely follow the chronology of the concept, filmmaking and subsequent success. Both Kentis and Lau feature heavily, along with edited interviews with Ryan and Travis. This is an interesting insight into how the husband and wife team really did set about doing it on their own, right from financing the equipment and shoot to editing the piece. One standout character is Stuart Cove, professional shark wrangler—or in this case, ‘choreographer’.

Beneath the Surface—a ‘making of’ featurette that goes into the actual production and development in more detail. There’s more from the two stars about the no frills shoot, their involvement in developing the script and being in the sea with real sharks. A lot more from Kentis and Lau, too, with the director touching on gaining inspiration from the Dogme 95 mandates. There is hardly any repetition of anecdote and together these last two featurettes provide enough background that you can’t help but respect Kentis and Lau’s achievement anew.

Six Deleted Scenes—They’re an example of Kentis’ eye for a good frame on the cheap and the easy (if painful!) improv relationship Ryan and Travis had developed. The alternate beginning is intriguing and would have set the piece going with a different tone, but, personally, I think Kentis wisely chose against it.

Finally, we come to the interactive White Shark feature. Select this and a certain points throughout the film a shark icon appears, à la the white rabbit in The Matrix, but less exhilarating. Click on the icon and the movie pauses while cutting to edited interviews with the talking heads. Do this a couple of times and you realize you’re getting more chump bait rather than prime catch as it’s mostly, but not quite all, the previous featurettes chopped up bite-size.

Open Water
Overall
As a break-out feature Open Water took large sections of the movie-going public by storm, and rightly so. It’s a testament to both its inherent quality and the skills in the Kentis/Lau relationship—as is its international DVD release. First and foremost, Open Water is a quality, independently made feature that both plays on and hides its hands-on and small budget approach and it’s tempting to read allegory into its success. It will be interesting to see how the pair survive next floating out in the filmmaker’s sea amongst the predatory sharks big movie business, working together to get to their next shore (etc). With this in mind, the strengths of this release lies less in the movie itself, and more in the insights into the how its creators brought it into being. Both are diverting, but neither will stand up to many repeat viewings.


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