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By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 6, 2004; Page WE31

FEAR OF a shark attack, it seems, is something you can always take to the bank. Ask Steven Spielberg. After all, Republican, Democrat or otherwise, we're all defenseless in the water. So any movie that even hints at human beings turning into screaming, splashing sea chum stands to attract intense and diverse audiences.

Which is where "Open Water," a grainy, digitally shot $30,000 indie that caused an agitated splash at Sundance, comes in. Clearly, filmmaker Chris Kentis (who does everything behind the camera except wrangle the sharks) is aiming for a sort of Blair Fish Project that builds cult success through spooked-out word of mouth.

In the digitally-shot indie "Open Water," the sharks act rings around Blanchard Ryan and Daniel Travis. (Laura Lau -- Lions Gate Films)

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It's a canny move, better than the actual drama itself. The atavistic terror we bring into "Open Water" is the real emotional engine. The two actors (who spent 120 hours filming this in real, shark-infested waters in the Caribbean), the story, and the lurching, empty sea that becomes our lasting image, they're just the collective ignition key. We should get paid for making this movie as much as the filmmakers.

Tearing themselves away from the never-ending demands of yuppie life, Susan (Blanchard Ryan) and Daniel (Daniel Travis) book a scuba-diving vacation on a Caribbean island. They check into the hotel, bum around town (with Daniel posing for a photo inside a stuffed shark mouth, nudge, nudge), amble on the beach and fight in the bedroom.

Finally they get on the scuba boat that we know is taking them to the worst ordeal of their lives. We wait for the inevitable, our fears and expectations at high tide. How it happens: Susan and Daniel go diving with a group of other tourist-divers. They take their time coming to the surface. By then, the tour guide (who assures everyone at the beginning of the trip just how safe this jaunt will be) has messed up the head count, pulled up his rope ladder and split back to dry land. They are alone. Treading water. Human sushi.

Even though this movie's a mere 79 minutes, it feels like an eternity as Susan and Daniel experience a plethora of emotions. At first they gamely wait, assuming the tour guide will realize his mistake and turn around. As their hope wanes, the disbelief and the anger come. After clinging physically and emotionally to each other, their union starts to unravel. A number of issues that were roiling under the surface of their marriage bubble up.

Then there are the physical problems: exhaustion from staying afloat and awake, dehydration (no drinking that salt water, honey), and a sort of seasickness from all the rocking around. Oh yeah, I should mention the real big problem: They are hovering above the bone crunching maws of countless sharks who, you know, like to jostle and bump their meals for hours before going in for the kill. Susan and Daniel are way out to sea; the island isn't even in sight.

The only thing worse than being suspended over sharks in brilliant sunshine is the same situation in the still darkness of night.

Is your movie running? Kentis's efforts to build affection for Susan and Daniel are less successful than the fearful situation in which he dunks them. Their dialogue is often very stilted and their relationship is rather banal. The acting isn't particularly noteworthy though, it should be said, Bergmanesque compared to the horrible human performances in "The Blair Witch Project." The technical aspect is double-edged: It's chilly and freaky to see horror through a no-budget lens. Makes it seem documentary-real. But the digitized image is more cold and distancing than the celluloid one -- where you can better appreciate the details of a human face, the subtle flicker of eyes, the visual fabric of human interaction. These dramatic shortfalls make us merely worried that two human beings are in danger, but not two compelling souls. There's your missing ingredient, the human X-factor. And, as the clock ticks on, the sharks thresh and the dialogue continues to stagnate, you might just catch yourself wickedly thinking: Come on sharks, let's do this.

OPEN WATER (R, 79 minutes) -- Contains nudity, obscenity and emotional intensity. Area theaters.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company