The Blair Witch Project is arguably the most-spoofed, yet least-imitated, blockbuster in film history. That has a lot to do with its dearth of independently bankable features. After all, even dire Quentin Tarantino knockoffs generally boast a marketable (or at least video-friendly) blend of stylized violence, colorful profanity, hipster attitude, and fading-but-recognizable B-list celebrities. But a Blair Witch knockoff offers audiences little more than grungy footage of rapidly deteriorating folks freaking out, which isn't exactly a sure-fire recipe for box-office gold. The lineage of the micro-budgeted film-festival sensation Open Water can be traced directly to The Blair Witch Project, but it still hedges its bets, throwing in gratuitous nudity, photogenic stars, and travelogue-style footage of colorful aquatic creatures before separating its terrified leads from the comfort and safety of civilization.
A withering exposé of substandard safety precautions in the diving trade, Open Water casts Blanchard Ryan and Daniel Travis as hard-charging yuppies who take an exotic diving vacation that quickly becomes a struggle for survival when their diving boat scoots off without them, leaving them to fend for their lives among circling sharks and one menacingly filmed jellyfish.
Writer-director Chris Kentis has dreamed up an ingenious premise, but he botches its execution. Every once in a while, the film stumbles upon a twist that ratchets up the tension, but then haphazardly discards it: When Ryan gets separated from Travis, her solitary ordeal is much more frightening than the prospect of an annoying couple suffering together, but more importantly, it temporarily halts the whining and bickering that make the two leads so unbearable. Similarly, a storm and nightfall add ominous elements to the couple's already dire predicament, but by the time Kentis introduces them, the film is essentially over. In the end, Open Water marks an honorable attempt at crafting white-knuckle suspense out of suggestion and mood rather than carnage or explicit violence. But its grating characters and shaky grasp of filmcraft make it tempting to root for the sharks to finally put the film's leads out of their waterlogged misery.