Susan May Pratt
Richard Speight Jr
Just as it was the curse of Chris Kentis' shark-vérité thriller Open Water (2003) to be endlessly compared to Jaws and The Blair Witch Project, so German commercial director Hans Horn's Adrift will be forever doomed to suffer comparison with Open Water - indeed it is being marketed (outside of the UK) as Open Water 2.
Both films claim to be "based on true events", both force their main players to spend hours trying to stay afloat in the wide open sea, and both make great play of the small yet significant distance that lies between civilized modernity and deep, deep chaos. And while there may be no sharks in Adrift, its characters manage to circle each other with just as much predatory viciousness, so that those clear blue waters are quick to turn blood-red.
A quartet of old high school friends reunite in Mexico for a birthday weekend on a luxury yacht, with a girlfriend, a husband, and a baby daughter in tow. Soon all six adults are in the open water for a quick dip - even severely aquaphobic Amy (Susan May Pratt), pushed in as a prank by their host Dan (Eric Dane) - but nobody had thought first to lower the boat's ladder, and the slippery hull proves impossible to climb. They must contend with the freezing water, cramps, dehydration, exhaustion, and the audible crying of baby Sara on board, not to mention each other, as they confront their own hidden strengths and weaknesses in a life-and-death struggle to keep their heads above water.
It must have been just a little bit galling for Horn to see his feature debut, conceived long before he had even heard of Open Water, being reduced to a pseudo-sequel, not least because Adrift is in many ways the superior film, more convincing in its dialogue, characterisation and performances, and certainly better looking - but the fact remains that Horn would never have been able to secure the funding for his stunning cinemascopic ocean views had it not been for the runaway box-office success of Open Water, which sent the studios into a feeding frenzy for similar projects. Like it or not, Adrift was always going to be bobbing in the wake left behind by its predecessor, and Horn acknowledges his debt to Open Water not only by opening his film with 'home video' footage that mimics Kentis' low-budget digicam, but also by including a scene where one of his reluctant swimmers becomes convinced that there are sharks in the water.
At the same time, Horn exploits expectations raised by the gloomy ending of Open Water (and reinforced by the actual story on which Adrift is loosely based, which ended with the death of the entire crew) to prepare his viewers for the worst possible outcome, while also introducing an infant-in-peril subplot that at least seems to bring into play the long-standing cinematic convention that children cannot be killed. This sends ripples of real tension through the film, leaving viewers genuinely unsure just how things are going to finish up in Horn's sink-or-swim thriller, where everything (apart from the yacht's unreachable deck) is up for grabs.
Perhaps best of all, though, is the way in which Horn allows material of a more symbolic bent to float alongside his hapless characters, enabling Adrift to rise above the confines of its genre. From the moment one of the characters fails in his attempt to grab hold of the yacht's flag and is seen holding a tattered shred of the Stars and Stripes in his hand, the film can easily be recognised as an allegorical commentary (from a non-American director) on the United States, all lost at sea and at odds with itself now that it is under the steerage of an incompetent and deceitful helmsman. Even more striking is the film's preoccupation with theological issues, as dying characters recite the Lord's Prayer, grasp rosaries, discuss the problem of evil, or sink to the watery depths in decidedly cruciform poses - and all this in a film whose working title was Godspeed (which is also the name of the yacht).
Only, however, the most devout and hardline of Christians in the audience will fail to feel even a twinge of disappointment at the film's spinelessly redemptive ending. Really the hopelessly bleak conclusion of Open Water ought to have drowned all possibility of a meaningful sequel, but Adrift closes in such a way that there is, I'm afraid, every chance that Open Water 3 might surface in a cinema (or more likely a video store) near you.