Review: Open WaterOut of sight, out of mind

PETA (People for Ethical Treatment of Actors) would surely look askance on the treatment of Blanchard Ryan and Daniel Travis in Open Water. The directors tossed the two of them into shark-infested waters in the Bahamas along with dead tuna to attract the predators. Call it Stanislavsky for Dummies.
Moviemakers continue to obsess over making video look more like film, but for now, at least, the distinctive look of video serves as a useful visual cue. Open Water was shot with digital video camcorders, and this lends the movie the look and feel of realism (many a honeymooner will see the resemblance to their own crappy honeymoon video). The movie is also inspired by a true story of two scuba divers abandoned in the ocean, and all this conspires to produce the strong audience empathy that is central to the movie's chilling horror. The feeling, forever to be associated with the Blair Witch Project, is that of unearthing someone's private nightmare and realizing the personal terrors concealed by everyday life (the soundtrack is thankfully spare, except for occasional bursts of aboriginal music that distracted from the documentary feel).
The two lead actors play a generic yuppie couple stealing a quick scuba vacation in the midst of their fast-paced professional lives. Even as they pull out of the driveway, they're on their cell phones, tying up loose ends. Before we even have time to learn much about their respective personalities, they're underwater petting moray eels, and then an accounting error that would make Enron proud causes them to surface to a large expanse of empty ocean.
The audience never feels close to the characters in the way they might have if the story spent more time on character development, or even if the two parts had been played by more recognizable actors, but by movie's end, the shallow characterization didn't matter as much to me as it would in the usual movie. Open Water is about how quickly and how similarly we'd all devolve in the same situation, how being left behind by the world to serve as fish bait to packs of sharks strips us of our humanity and turns us literally into animals. As the hours tick by, the parade of emotions unfold in a familiar sequence: confusion, quick reanalysis of the situation (are we sure we surfaced in the right place?), attempts at humor (well, at least we have a good story to share at the office water cooler), disbelief, a gnawing terror as the sharks begin to circle, anger at the arbitrary cruelty of fate, blame (I wanted to go skiing instead!), and then a numbness as the two realize that they have been forgotten, that in this wide expanse of a world, a person might go days, even weeks, before he is missed.
The directors occasionally cut back to the mainland and show other vacationers reveling in tropic bars and clubs, daily life having continued without the couple in question. An even more claustrophobic depiction might have stayed solely with the couple from the time they were abandoned. It would make a fascinating alternative cut of the movie.
When I was on sabbatical in South America last year, I went on a several day W circuit through Torres del Paine. I did not realize that for three days I would not see another human being, the longest period of isolation from human contact in my entire life. On the third evening, I awoke in the middle of the night needing to use the bathroom, but I could not find my flashlight. Without a single ray of moonlight, I was lost in the thickest darkness ever.
As I crawled and groped around my tent, primal horrors leaked out of my subconscious. What if I got lost and died out in the wintry wasteland? What if a pack of wild dogs hunted me down? What if I simply collapsed of illness and perished alone, like the young man in Into the Wild? How long would it take for the world to come searching for me? Was anyone in the world wondering where I was at that moment? Did anyone remember me, or was my connection to the rest of the world merely a matter of convenience and location?