Kurt Loder On ‘Open Water,’ ‘Collateral’ And ‘Code 46′

'Open Water' is blunt and terrifying; 'Collateral' is 'a Tom Cruise movie, but in a good way'; 'Code 46' is eerily memorable.

“Open Water”: Blunt And Terrifying

“Open Water” is a shark movie with real sharks in it — a squirmier proposition than the traditional rubber-finned, flee-the-beach type of shark flick. And while it’s not “Jaws” (to say the least), the picture brings a new documentary jolt to the genre.

Made for just $100,000 by the husband-and-wife team of Chris Kentis and Laura Lau (he writes, directs and edits; she produces; they both shoot, on digital video), “Open Water” is a story modeled on the 1998 disappearance of Thomas and Eileen Lonergan, a pair of vacationing American scuba-divers who were mistakenly left behind by a group-dive boat on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. The Lonergans were never seen again, and their bodies were never found. But while the local dive industry at first floated the notion that the couple had faked their deaths or committed suicide, police ultimately decided that a lone swim fin, a piece of a wetsuit and other items that later floated ashore ruled out those possibilities. An Australian shark expert concluded that the Lonergans had either been torn apart by a great white shark (a vicious species that can grow to more than 20 feet in length) or had simply died of “dehydration and despair” under the blazing tropical sun.

“Open Water” begins on dry land, with a married couple, Daniel (Daniel Travis) and Susan (Blanchard Ryan) — a pair of harried young professionals — scrambling to catch a flight to the Bahamas for a hastily planned vacation. Arriving at an unnamed resort, they hit the beach and start settling into the rhythm of island life: palm trees, pelicans, scampering gekkos and lilting sounds. (The movie’s interesting soundtrack is a compendium of island music ranging from a Fijian children’s choir to the great Bahamian guitarist Joseph Spence.) Unfortunately, as captured on cheap DV cameras, this opening sequence has the flat, insipid look of tourist vacation footage, and director Kentis has admitted that he inserted an entirely gratuitous nude shot of Ryan later on solely to liven it up.

Things start going wrong the next day, when Daniel and Susan — both certified scuba divers — join a group of other vacationers on a dive boat that takes them far out to sea. Daniel — a recognizable urban type: aloof, all-knowing and determined to do his own thing — insists that he and Susan break off from the group underwater and explore the reef on their own. Meanwhile, up on the boat, a man who’s forgotten his face mask is fuming because the crew won’t let him dive without it. When one couple from the group comes back onboard early, he borrows the woman’s mask and persuades her partner to return to the water with him. The crew hasn’t noticed this, and half an hour later, when the two men climb back on the boat with the rest of the divers, they appear to round out the passenger count, and the captain, thinking everyone’s aboard, weighs anchor and sets off for shore. When Daniel and Susan finally surface, some time later, they’re alone on the open water.

At first, they don’t panic. They spot two boats in the distance, and Susan suggests they start swimming toward one of them. Daniel informs her that the boats are farther off than they look; they’d never reach them. Before long, the boats are gone. Then the two of them start to bicker. Susan berates Daniel for always wanting to go off and do things on his own: Look what’s happened. Daniel blames Susan for booking this tropical getaway in the first place: He had really wanted to go skiing. Then Susan realizes she has a small cut on her leg; it’s bleeding. Her eyes dart away toward a splash in the water: “Daniel,” she says tensely, “was that a shark?”

It is, and in the first of the movie’s several really alarming shots — an overhead view of Susan on her back in the water — we see a frighteningly large, gray shape sliding ominously underneath her, so close it bumps her body. Knowing this shark is real (there are no computer effects in “Open Water”), we instantly feel the full terror of the couple’s situation: abandoned on the high sea, with no rescuer in sight, parched and weary as the sun begins to set and more sharks begin to circle. Things get worse. Then they get much worse. Then a sudden tropical storm begins to flash and howl in the deepening darkness.

The marvel of this film is almost entirely logistical. The two actors don’t get to express much amid the slosh and slap of water; and if the movie ran any longer than its compact 79 minutes, the constant close-ups of Daniel and Susan bobbing in the water (early on, at least) would get monotonous. As it is, though, “Open Water” taps into our primal fear of nightmarish creatures whose only instinct is to kill and eat. It conveys this horror with handheld camera work that has the raw immediacy of a you-are-there news report, and you wonder in amazement how on earth the movie was made.

As it turns out, the filmmakers worked with experienced Caribbean shark wranglers, and with a pod of relatively non-vicious reef sharks that were accustomed to being around people (noisy, gawking tourists, presumably). The wranglers kept the sharks’ possibly problematic appetites in check with strategically tossed bucketfuls of bloody raw-tuna chunks, and the actors wore un-chewable chain-metal armor under their wet suits — not that that would have prevented the ripping off of an unprotected hand or even a head if things got out of control. Every precaution was taken, but this obviously was still a dangerous movie to make.

“Open Water” doesn’t offer much in cinematic terms. There’s none of the visual elegance or emotional elaboration that a bigger budget would have allowed (or demanded, probably). The movie is a blunt instrument whose only purpose is to terrify, and it does this with considerable power. There might not be any point in seeing it twice (the law of diminishing horror-movie returns), but you surely won’t forget seeing it once.

“Collateral”: A Tom Cruise Movie, But In A Good Way

“Collateral” is a big, expensive Hollywood crime thriller made by experts. Since Michael Mann (“Ali,” “The Insider”) directed it, the picture has snap and verve and a sure pace, and the freeway vistas and glittering corporate towers of Los Angeles are beautifully photographed. The script is streamlined and funny, and the action really grabs you. It’s a professional piece of work on a pretty high level.

It’s also a Tom Cruise movie, but in a good way.

Jamie Foxx plays Max, an L.A. cabbie who likes to chat up his fares. One night he picks up an attractive woman (Jada Pinkett-Smith) wearing a sleek business suit. In the course of his customary interaction, Max learns that her name is Annie and that she’s a federal prosecutor on her way to the office to pull an all-nighter on a big crime case. Annie is so charmed by Max that as she’s climbing out of his cab, she impulsively hands him her card and suggests that he call her sometime. Nothing like this would ever happen on the planet we inhabit, but let’s let that pass.

Max’s next memorable passenger (Cruise) is also sleekly suited. His name is Vincent, and he’s from out of town. He doesn’t like L.A., and once he’s closed five pressing business deals, he wants to head right back to the airport to catch a morning flight out. Vincent takes a quick liking to Max and asks if he’ll be his driver for the night. He offers $600. Max, with some misgivings, agrees.

Vincent is a professional hit man. He’s been hired by a drug cartel that’s about to get busted by the feds to take out the syndicate turncoats who’ve turned state’s evidence. His first stop with Max is an apartment house. Vincent disappears inside, and minutes later a body comes flying from an upper balcony and lands with a bone-splintering crash on the roof of Max’s taxi. At a gasping loss for anything else to say, Max looks at this obvious corpse and asks, “You okay?” When Vincent comes walking back out of the building, he tells Max not to waste any sympathy on the dead guy: “He was a criminal, involved in a continuing criminal enterprise.”

And so they make the rounds, Vincent methodically rubbing out various rats and Max wondering what he’s gotten himself into and, more pressingly, how he can pry himself out. “Collateral” delivers just about everything an action movie should, and more stylishly than most. Vincent’s executions are staged with sometimes breathtaking violence. (One of his hits, in a mellow jazz club, is so shockingly unexpected, it takes a stunned moment to process the fact that it’s actually happened.) The requisite showpiece shootout, in a roaring all-night disco, is a spectacular eruption of mayhem. And when the final name on Vincent’s to-do list turns out to be none other than Annie, the federal prosecutor, who is, of course, up in her office nailing down the case against the cartel… well, you know you’re in the hands of script-wise showbiz pros.

Cruise, with his hair dyed gray, plays Vincent as a steely psychopath with vestigial glimmerings of humanity (he likes, and knows a lot about, jazz). It’s a performance of great control, and considerable generosity: In all the right places, he steps back to let Foxx shine — and Foxx has rarely shone brighter.

Getting excited about (as opposed to by) this sort of movie is hard to imagine. It’s an efficient entertainment, but it doesn’t add up to much, and you’re not likely to waste any time afterward pondering its existential ambiguities. And yet there are so many worse action movies out there, and each one is such a near-complete waste of time, that you can’t help but feel grateful when a pretty good one like this comes down the pike. It’s not high art, but it’s a night out, and everybody needs one of them sometimes.

“Code 46″: Shanghaied Sci-Fi

“Code 46″ is the kind of eerily memorable movie that you know, while you’re watching it, won’t be seen by a whole lot of people. It’s science-fiction only by virtue of the fact that it’s set in the (near) future. There’s no CGI, no out-of-this-world technology, and there’s not an alien in sight. The film, directed by the adventurous Michael Winterbottom (“24 Hour Party People”), derives its vague sense of otherness from the out-of-the-way places in which it was shot: Shanghai, mostly, and the Arabian Gulf emirate of Dubai, and the Indian city of Jaipur. You know you’re somewhere else, but you haven’t left the planet.

The movie is a love story of a strange and unusually somber sort. The Earth’s teeming cities have been walled off, and travel among them requires a special, hard-to-get passport called a papelle. The cities’ inhabitants basically serve the purposes of an all-powerful government; those who fail to serve those purposes are exiled to the post-apocalyptic deserts that surround the cities, there to wander the sunbaked wastelands and be forgotten.

Forged papelles have started turning up, and a Seattle detective named William (Tim Robbins) is assigned to find out where they’re coming from. He flies to Shanghai, the headquarters of the Sphinx agency, which manufactures papelles and is apparently the source of the forgeries. Upon arriving at the Sphinx, as it’s called, he passes a young woman (Samantha Morton) to whom he feels an immediate attraction. He soon learns that her name is Maria and that she is one of the suspects in the forgery case. William works with an “empathy virus,” which enables him to detect when people are lying to him. In an interview, he quickly realizes that Maria is lying — she is, in fact, the forger — but he finds himself suddenly and inexplicably in love with her, and he can’t turn her in. He fingers another suspect instead. Later that night, he and Maria — who is strongly attracted to him as well — go to her apartment and make love. The next day, with the forgery case purportedly closed, William flies back to Seattle, where he has a wife and son.

The case isn’t closed, of course, and when more forged papelles start appearing, William is sternly directed to return to Shanghai and this time find the forger without fail. When he arrives back at the Sphinx, he learns that Maria is no longer there. She had a “body issue,” he is told — she was pregnant — and was found to be guilty of a “Code-46 violation.” Code 46 is a law that prohibits conception between people who are, to any significant extent, genetically identical. Maria has been sent to a remote clinic and subjected to an abortion. She has also had all knowledge of the father of her child — it’s William — erased from her memory.

In tracking Maria down, William starts raising suspicions right and left. He finally finds her and takes her back to Shanghai. There, he snips off a lock of her hair and takes it to a DNA clinic, where a test reveals that Maria was cloned years earlier from William’s mother. Despite the Code-46 prohibition, he convinces Maria to come with him, and they flee to a faraway city. The authorities are now in open pursuit. The couple buys a rattletrap car, but in attempting to escape across the desert, William crashes it, and they are both knocked unconscious. William wakes up back home in Seattle; his illegal behavior has been attributed to the “memory virus,” and he has been pardoned. After having all memories of Maria expunged from his mind, he is allowed to return happily to his wife and child. Maria is last seen wandering in the desert, a homeless exile. Her memories of William have been left intact, because “nobody cares what an exile thinks.”

Okay: not a feel-good movie. But in extrapolating from our contemporary unease about human cloning, and of course the ever-ominous powers of government, “Code 46″ presents a future society that’s hauntingly plausible. Robbins and Morton don’t seem to have much in the way of romantic chemistry at first — or do they? In fact, they probably have all the chemistry possible in a world that’s been so drained of cheer and trust and human possibility, and so fundamentally disfigured by scientific technology. They have too much chemistry, it turns out, and it dooms them both in different, dreadful ways.