In Adrift, five former college friends gather for a cruise on a yacht belonging to Dan (Eric Dane), one of their number who has made it big in the business world. His friends include extreme sports nut Lauren (Ali Hillis) and shy guy Zach (Niklaus Lange), who still nurses a crush on her, plus Amy (Susan May Pratt), who Dan has always fancied but who ended up with his best friend James (Richard Speight Jr). Those two are now married and they've brought their baby daughter. Dan has also invited along his latest trophy girlfriend, Michelle (Cameron Richardson).
One sunny morning, as their yacht floats on the glassy Caribbean, the group takes a swim in the ocean, all except Amy who has been afraid of the water since childhood. However, Dan has gotten it into his head that the best cure for Amy's phobia is to face it head on and so he picks her up and leaps off the deck. Great idea. As soon as they hit the water, Amy passes out from terror and one of the others asks Dan where's the ladder. Uh oh. He's forgotten to lower it. There's no way back on board.
Adrift arrives two years after Open Water, another movie about vulnerable people lost on a vast ocean. The similarities are such that in some international territories, Adrift is being released as Open Water 2, which is a bit of a cheat since there are no sharks in this one. Despite the lack of originality and some glaring flaws, which I'll come to, I found Adrift to be a marginally better film.
Open Water was harrowing but it was also easy to step back from because it was so overwhelmingly bleak and nihilistic and because it didn't really make us care about its two divers before it turned them into sharkbait. Adrift isn't exactly a fun night out either but at least it has a few sympathetic characters - Susan May Pratt's hydrophobic young mother especially - and, crucially, it gives them something to do other than bob about, miserably waiting for their fates.
The main appeal of the film is watching these six people try to work out a way to get back on board their yacht. Some real suspense is generated as their attempts come close to success. None of the six has any knowledge of yachts or the sea, not even Dan, so they're in the same boat, so to speak, as we would be. Amy's fear of the water and the presence of her and Zach's baby on the yacht make the situation more tense and interesting.
There is however a delicate balance to be struck between making the swimmers believably ignorant and panicky and making them just plain dumb and I think Adrift crosses it a couple too many times. There were several occasions when they acted so stupidly, I came close to shouting at the screen in frustration. This shows how caught up in the drama I'd become but the more they behaved moronically, the more I was pulled out of it. One example - you would think even the scurviest landlubbers would appreciate that you should send the lightest, not the heaviest person up your flimsy, makeshift rope.
Some of the characters are drawn far too broadly, especially Dan, whose idiocy puts the others in danger too frequently. The script also dips into shameless melodrama at times. Its various romantic triangles and unrequited loves are unnecessary. There's also a scene late in the film in which one of the characters makes a tearful confession that's likely to inspire unintentional laughter.
Even with its flaws, Adrift does work on a gut level. It creates a nightmarish situation we can easily identify with and it works up a fair amount of tension as its characters try to get themselves out of it. The script by Adam Kreutner is hit and miss but the direction by German first-timer Hans Horn is quite impressive. He pulls off some strong suspense scenes and some memorable visuals - an underwater shot of a jet flying over the swimmers is simply eye-popping.