If Van Helsing plays like a Stephen King novel, Open Water plays like a Jack London short story: The Call of the Wild, only with sharks. The sky and the ocean become characters. Their unpredictable moods shape the characters' responses. Forgoing computer generated digital tricks, director Chris Kentis drops us into the open sea, swimming with wild, live sharks—in their territory. No mechanical man-eaters or smoothly gliding fins here. The sharks' movements are quick, frantic, and disorienting. Kentis filmed the underwater scenes himself, while his collaborator and wife, Laura Lau, handled the shots filmed from the dive boat.

The scariest part, though, is that the film is based on the true story of a couple who were accidentally left behind on a diving excursion on Australia's Great Barrier Reef—left behind to fend for themselves against the elements, including sharks, in the open water.

"We liked the simple premise of the story," Kentis said at a Seattle International Film Festival interview. "We liked the challenge of telling a story without resorting to rubber sharks and digital effects."

That's no mechanical shark. That's the real deal

That's no mechanical shark. That's the real deal

Open Water is not a shark movie. It's a very real situation, filmed in an intimate, compelling style. In the movie, a professional couple, Susan (Blanchard Ryan) and Daniel (Daniel Travis) heads to the Bahamas for a dive vacation. The dive captain makes an inaccurate head count, leaving Susan and Daniel floating in the endless sea.

"We were aware of the situation where a dive couple was left behind on the Great Barrier Reef," said Lau, "but we didn't feel driven to re-create the details of their ordeal." Kentis added, "We're divers ourselves, and we wanted to tell the story in as real a way as possible. We worked hard to avoid the usual clichés in this kind of a movie, opting for something original."

Thus, the plot and action are not what we expect. Open Water delivers an almost documentary-style immediacy. The decision to use relatively unknown actors allows us to see them as people in danger, rather than as movie stars bobbing around in a tank.

It's terror on the seas for Blanchard Ryan and Daniel Travis

It's terror on the seas for Blanchard Ryan and Daniel Travis

Kentis and Lau were influenced by the Dogme 95 movement, in which independent filmmakers vowed to shed the elaborate tricks of computer animation and monster budgets. Kentis: "We didn't feel that we needed to be bound by the Dogme Vow of Chastity, but we liked the idea of hand-held cameras, location shooting and available light whenever possible." Open Water is shot on High Definition Video, which is dramatically less expensive than 35-millimeter film. (The video is transferred to 35-millimeter for the projection print, however.) One advantage of shooting on video: when the weather changed, or sharks and jellyfish appeared, they could start shooting right away. "With film stock," said Lau, "you have to load the camera and you're out of film in twenty minutes. You can't be spontaneous."

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The dive boat captain served as an actor, but he was also something of a director as well. He knew the ocean intimately. He could spot a storm and tell Kentis and Lau exactly how much time they had before the wind or rain would change the whole set. They could decide to run for cover or use it in the film. Following Kentis and Lau's desire to keep it real, the divers were regular people whose "salary" was a free dive. "We did use shark wranglers," Lau explained. "They knew and had worked with these particular sharks. So these were sharks that lived and hunted on our locations. They were wild, not trained."

Kentis and Lau's lean format gives Open Water a sense of intimate realism that gets lost in over-produced Hollywood films. It allows the filmmakers to create something that is truly theirs. The swollen budgets of big movies require that endless committees of executives rewrite the script and dictate additions and deletions. This explains why so many films seem the same, and why they are becoming even more fantasy driven. Plot and character take a backseat to dazzle and glitter, and the endings are comfortably familiar.

Director Chris Kentis and producer Laura Lau during filming

Director Chris Kentis and producer Laura Lau during filming

"Special effects are certainly valid, especially in The Lord of the Rings and films like it," said Kentis. "This is simply a different kind of film."

The style is reminiscent of the 1970s when independent filmmakers like Martin Scorsese moved out of the studios and onto the streets. Better film and smaller cameras allowed location filming, which lowered costs and encouraged originality. The '70s movies were driven by story and character, rather than fast editing and special effects. "That's why I still like those movies," Kentis said. "When a car rolled over, you thought, There's a real guy in there. We wanted to bring that sense of real experience to this movie."

"What's interesting," said Lau, "is that the new computer technology is what has allowed us to move into simpler, less technology-dependent movie making." High Definition Video technology allows Dogme 95-style directors to go into the streets, or in the case of Open Water, into resorts, beaches and the ocean. "Nobody is aware that we're making a movie, because, with our small cameras, we look like tourists. We can use locations and real crowds without having to block off streets."

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The actors (Ryan and Travis) appreciated the scaled-back—and laid-back—approach.

Kentis gets a REAL close-up of a live shark

Kentis gets a REAL close-up of a live shark

"We told the actors up front, 'You'll be doing your own hair,'" said Lau. "There won't be trailers and caterers. When it's lunchtime, we'll have lunch. We told them that the money was going into the film, not into perks and frills. They got involved in the creative process because of that. Sometimes we said, 'Let's break for lunch,' and they would say, 'No. Let's use this light, or these waves.'"

Sailors and divers will appreciate this approach to using nature as a character. Out on the water, things can change very quickly. A breezy, sun-filled day can turn into a raging squall almost immediately. The water will be choppy and gray, then smooth and green. In a wave tank, you get water that doesn't look like water. The viewer is given a manipulated substitute for the ocean.

Open Water is no manipulated substitute. It's the real deal. The audience won't be saying, "I know how they made that rubber shark move through the water." Instead, they'll say, "Yikes! A shark just bit her!" Instead of saying, "What a great actress, especially the way she can emote this sense of aloneness," they'll be saying, "Man, she really is alone out there."

Kentis and Lau have labored to make an almost documentary-style film. It's meant to make us feel like we are really there, and to a large extent it succeeds.

As real and scary as it is, though, Kentis said he hopes that viewers "don't come away thinking that sharks are evil and diving is dangerous." Lau agreed: "Sharks in the water are majestic. When they attack people, it's by mistake. And diving is no more dangerous than many other sports. But we often go to a resort and just jump in the water, forgetting that it's a wild place. That's what we wanted to capture in this film. It's wild, and you can't predict."

Talk About It

Discussion starters
  1. What would you say to your loved one if you thought you might die together?

  2. Have you ever been out in the wild, or with wild animals, and realized that you did not respect their power? Have you ever feared for your safety in such a situation?

  3. How would you deal with a situation in which you were absolutely alone?

The Family Corner

For parents to consider

The action is at times very frightening, with some coarse language. There is also a brief scene that includes female frontal nudity, but it's non-sexual; she's lying on the bed reading a book.

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What Other Critics Are Saying

Who says married life is boring? Sarah and Daniel set a compelling example of how to deepen your relationship with your spouse: they set off to the Bahamas for a vacation that involves some diving. When their boat crew abandons them in the middle of the ocean, they have only each other to look to for support, fighting off panic, exhaustion, and eventually—cue that famous two-note theme—sharks!

Open Water is earning raves as one of the scariest films of the decade. Filmed to create the impression of realism (those are real sharks nudging the actors' legs), director Chris Kentis takes the audience into a terrifying ordeal. But despite the outrageous circumstances, Kentis keeps the focus on these convincing characters and the testing of their relationship.

Stefan Ulstein (Christianity Today Movies) says the film has "a sense of intimate realism that gets lost in over-produced Hollywood films. It allows the filmmakers to create something that is truly theirs."

Film Forum will excerpt other religious press reviews of the film when they are posted or published. Mainstream press reviews are available here.

The discomfortingly realistic drama Open Water continued to scare and trouble movie critics this week, but they came away with many criticisms about its craftsmanship.

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) says it "resembles The Blair Witch Project in its style and structure. The central characters foolishly place themselves in harm's way and throughout the rest of the film we simply wait for harm to come to them… There are long stretches where the film, much like its characters, simply drifts aimlessly."

Willie R. Magnum, Jr. (Christian Spotlight) says, "This is not a great film, but it achieves great effect. There are flashes of brilliance, the primary example being the premise. The cinematography is commendable … and the use of abstract footage is sometimes effective. The fatal flaw in this film is the writing. [Director Chris] Kentis has very little to say."

William D. Webber (Relevant) says, "While the cinematography is riveting most of the time, occasionally it becomes weirder than its own good. Despite all this, as a piece of extremely lo-fi cinema, Open Water reaches levels of emotional distress rarely met in movies 50 times the cost. Be warned, however: this is not your mother's shark tale. It won't just scare you; it'll crush your spirit."

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Tom Neven (Plugged In) says it "taps into everyone's primal fear of being at the mercy of creatures whose only instinct is to kill and eat, as well as being completely at the mercy of nature's whims." He files a complaint about "the director's deliberate use of nudity" and "the gush of foul language and profanity throughout this film."

Andrew Coffin (World) writes, "To the film's credit, it relies on surprisingly few monster-in-the-closet moments. The bare-bones approach the filmmakers take to the story, including the grainy digital photography, feels refreshingly anti-Hollywood. What does diminish [the] experience is the odd, out-of-place nudity and occasional bad language."

Recommending the film, Brian Godawa (Godawa.com) calls it "the scariest movie I have seen since Blair Witch Project. Why? Because it is based on a true story and has that same documentary style realism to it. Any movie that makes you think of yourself in the situation depicted and forces you to re-evaluate your own life and the value of what you are spending your time and energies on is a valuable tool for the conscience. Open Water does this for me. It's a brilliant low budget high concept film with a profound underlying premise that it is only in the face of the jaws of death that we wake up to the precious treasure of life."

Open Water
Our Rating
3 Stars - Good
Average Rating
(not rated yet)ADD YOURSHelp
Mpaa Rating
R (for language and some nudity)
Directed By
Chris Kentis
Run Time
1 hour 19 minutes
Blanchard Ryan, Daniel Travis, Saul Stein
Theatre Release
August 20, 2004 by Lions Gate
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