Open Water – The Real Story

This may be old news, a movie that came out five years ago, based on people who died in ’98; I popped it in my queue after vacationing in Hawaii. We didn’t go scuba diving, but we snorkeled. I also popped in Joe Versus the Volcano, and had no intentions of leaping into lava.

Open Water is an effective existential horror film. It’s not Jaws, though sharks certainly appear. It’s about a busy couple who take a spontaneous vacation, and go on a diving trip. It has no shaky-cam but still feels like vacation footage- claustrophobic and centered on them, as they relax and mess around in their hotel room. It plays with our expectations a little; they go out on the dive, and the boat crew is adamant about safety regulations, butting heads with an arrogant Aussie who forgot his mask but demands a dive.

Even we forget about the couple, Susan and Daniel, who stick to themselves and could be anybody. The boat crew readies to leave, miscounts the number of people… and leaves them alone in a reef where sharks are known to feed.

They rise and think they drifted, and wait for one of the two boats they see in the distance to realize they’re missing, and come pick them up. Typical entitled tourists, but aren’t we all? The underlying question is, what would you do? I had a high school pal named Fred who’d say that. Usually when pointing at a babe in spandex, and preceded by “If she got nekked right now…”

“What would you do?”

(Well, Fred, she does get naked in the prologue.)
The mounting sense of dread comes when the speck-size boats disappear over the horizon, and we’re reminded just how unimportant our lives are to the world and strangers, and how easily we could be forgotten. It comes from imagining a long, drawn out death spanning hours or days, adrift at sea with monsters below and an infinity of emptiness all around you.

Now imagine that this was loosely based on the true story of two LSU grads who just came back from 4 years of volunteering for the Peace Corps, and rewarded themselves with a trip to the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. Imagine they paid hundreds of dollars to be ferried out there with a group of 20 people, none of whom realized they were left behind, not even the crew who were responsible for counting them.

Pretty horrible, huh? Now think that when they got back, the shuttle bus operator told the crew they were missing, but nothing was done. Not until two days later, when they cleaned the boat and found their wallets. A massive search operation was mounted, but because the area they were in, “Fish City,” is cruised nightly by tiger sharks, no remains or clues were ever found. (Lesson: don’t dive on a Sunday.)


Their parents had their day in court. The dive industry in Australia is a $50 million a year business and brings much-needed economy to some towns. The boat owner was acquitted of manslaughter, even though it took him 2 days to report them missing. According to the article linked above, they even claimed that the couple faked their own death, to “start over.” Classy!

The industry likes to compare how few diving deaths Australia has, and how safe diving is compared to getting struck by lightning. The fact is, there’s a simple solution to the moronic tragedy of leaving people in shark-infested waters: Write their fucking names down and do a roll call instead of counting people. What pissed me off about this article where the industry shill cries about possible losses is that he doesn’t talk about any improvements to procedures by members of the dive industry.

I won’t ruin the movie for you, but let’s just say that no helicopter swooped in to save the Lonergans, either. Open Water may not be about them, but it drives home the horror they must have felt. Some may find it boring, but I have a deep and abiding respect for the immensity of the ocean. I like to joke, “I ain’t afraid of heights, I’m afraid of depths!” If you fall off a building, you’ve got 10 exciting seconds to live. Out at sea… you’ve got a lot of waiting for that hideous undersea creature to start nibbling on you.

The movie is filmed completed without CG effects. They used shark experts constantly feeding the animals tuna to keep them from attacking anybody. You see them incredibly close to the actors or stunt doubles. Sharks are scary, but the sense of helplessness and regret is what overwhelms you here. Ebert compared it to the mountain-climbing documentary, Into the Void, which will appeal to those with fear of heights. If you’re agoraphobic, this is the one for you. After this movie, If you’re ever in a situation like this, you’ll be dropping the scuba tanks and swimming after those far-away boats, hollering the whole time.

2 thoughts on “Open Water – The Real Story

  1. I refuse to see this movie, because my biggest fear is drowning. But I couldn’t seem to stop myself from reading your review all the way through, even though my palms were sweating the whole time!BTW, welcome to the LAMB. :-)

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