Open Water

The marketing people are describing “Open Water” as “‘The Blair Witch Project’ meets ‘Jaws’,” and while I usually just find that kind of talk funny — we all had a laugh when an actor friend of mine was described by a casting agent as “Kramer meets a young Eugene Levy” — in this case, darn it, they’re right.

“Open Water” isn’t nearly as good as either of those films, but when it’s on its game, it has the best elements of both. Like “Blair Witch,” it is shot on video, has a very small cast, isolates its characters away from civilization, and terrorizes them with a mostly unseen menace. Like “Jaws,” it has sharks.

Written, directed, edited and produced by Chris Kentis, with his wife Laura Lau as cinematographer and co-producer, the film gives us married couple Daniel (Daniel Travis) and Susan (Blanchard Ryan), both professionals in high-pressure jobs, both in need of a vacation.

They take a break on what appears to be a Caribbean island, where they take a scuba-diving trip and, due to the crew’s negligence, are left behind in the water. Miles from shore with no means of attracting rescuers (if anyone is even looking for them), Daniel and Susan must tread water and try not to look like shark bait. Unfortunately, as you know from watching “Shark Week” on the Discovery Channel, pretty much anything made of meat is shark bait.

There are several minutes of almost unbearable tension as the couple, along with the audience, wants to know what’s lurking beneath the water’s surface. Smartly, Kentis rarely takes the camera down below, leaving us as in the dark as Daniel and Susan are. This leads to one of the film’s best dialogue exchanges, just after a shark has been sighted:

SUSAN: I don’t know what’s worse, seeing them or not seeing them.
DANIEL: Seeing them.

This matter-of-factness runs throughout the film, with dialogue that is barely stylized and realistically mundane. That, along with the super-cheap video shoot, gives us the sensation of watching real home movies of an especially masochistic couple.

Alas, the acting is not what it should be. In the early scenes, Blanchard Ryan and Daniel Travis seem awkward, stilted. Later, in the water, scenes that are written well — including a bit of ill-timed marital strife — come off sounding forced rather than natural. Only when Susan and Daniel are in immediately peril do the performers seem to stop acting and start BEING the characters.

This is mostly just off-putting, but in the end, it becomes truly detrimental, as I’m sure I don’t buy Susan’s behavior in the film’s finale. On paper, it probably works. The way it’s enacted, it doesn’t.

So it is not the classic that “Blair Witch Project” and “Jaws” were, but there’s a good chunk of it that rivals them both. Its positives probably outweigh its negatives; certainly it will send shivers up the spine of anyone who has ever been out on the open water and thought, just for a second, about the dangers down below.

B- (1 hr., 19 min.; R, some harsh profanity, some non-sexual nudity, some blood.)