A solid dramatization of real world events, Adrift is nevertheless more compelling as a grisly survival drama than a love story.
Based somewhat loosely on real world events, Adrift finds director Baltasar Kormákur operating in what's clearly comfortable territory for him. In addition to crime films of both the serious (Contraband) and comedic variety (2 Guns), Kormákur has gravitated towards similarly true story-inspired man vs. nature adventures in the past; namely, Everest 3D and Icelandic drama The Deep. And as he did with those films, Kormákur takes the time to get audiences invested in Adrift's human characters, even when they're not doing battle with the elements. This time around, however, his efforts yield more in the way of mixed results. A solid dramatization of real world events, Adrift is nevertheless more compelling as a grisly survival drama than a love story.
Set in the year 1983, Adrift follows Tami Oldham (Shailene Woodley), a young 20-something wandering the world and looking to leave her old life in San Diego behind her. Upon making her way to Tahiti (it is, indeed, a magical place), Tami crosses paths with Richard Sharp (Sam Claflin), a 30-something sailor whom she quickly takes a liking to and, some five months later, falls properly in love with. As such, Tami is only somewhat hesitant to accompany Richard when he is hired by a wealthy couple to sail their luxurious boat from Tahiti to California - an extensive journey that will further take Tami back to her former home.
However, what starts out as challenging but manageable (and even romantic) journey for the couple turns into a nightmare when a massive sea storm strikes. Despite their best efforts to navigate around it, the pair end up sailing right into the hurricane and are only able to survive through sheer luck, more than anything else. With Richard badly injured and their vessel left damaged and drifting, it falls to Tami to find the strength and courage within herself to not only keep them alive, but try and keep their ship headed to Hawaii: their best shot at survival, given their current state.
Written by David Branson Smith (Ingrid Goes West) and brothers Aaron and Jordan Kandell (Moana), Adrift jumps back and forth in time between the film's present - where Tami and Richard are stranded at sea - and past, as the couple meet for the first time and fall in love. It's an interesting narrative structure that serves to make Adrift's two halves (the romance and survival thriller) feel equally important, but yields uneven returns. The shifts in time can be heavy-handed in the way they juxtapose the horrifying aftermath of the storm in the story with the happier times that proceeded them and, at other moments, simply disrupt the plot flow in the separate timelines. On the other hand, this approach helps to create more tension as Tami and Richard's story in the past begins to catch up to their current predicament, while at the same time showing how Tami's relationship with Richard shaped her into the survivalist we see in the present.
Part of the problem with Adrift's love story thread is that Woodley and Claflin, while solid actors on their own, don't have a whole lot in the way of screen chemistry. (Woodley's frequent costar Miles Teller, who was originally in line to play Richard, probably would have been better in the role for that very reason.) The connection that forms between the characters is believable enough but, unfortunately, there's never a real spark between them that makes their romance as moving and heart-warming as it's meant to be. For that reason, Adrift is most compelling in the scenes where Woodley as Tami is carrying the movie firmly on her shoulders and leading the charge to keep herself and the nearly-incapacitated Richard alive.
Similarly, Kormákur seems most confident and ambitious in his direction when it comes to staging Adrift's survival thriller scenes, starting with the film's impressive sequence shot opening. Adrift is often beautifully photographed by the three-time Oscar winner and frequent Quentin Tarantino cinematographer Robert Richardson, who finds ways to make the oceanic scenery here feel threatening, inviting, or alienating, depending on what the moment calls for. The film's sound design is equally important in immersing the audience in the feeling of being at sea, with nothing but a damaged (and often dangerous) boat at one's disposal. As he did with Everest, Kormákur takes a relatively modest budget ($35 million, in this case) and makes it work to positive effect here, giving rise to a movie that's better looking and sometimes better sounding than far more expensive Hollywood fare.
Because its technical aspects and craftsmanship - including, makeup that gives Woodley and Claflin a convincingly bedraggled look after weeks lost at sea - outshine its narrative, Adrift lacks depth compared to other true story-inspired survival dramas. It also comes up short as a character study and prefers to reveal Tami and Richard's backstories prior to their time together through useful but perfunctory exposition, rather than showing it by other means. As a result, most of the film's substance and heart comes from Woodley's solo performance, more than her interactions with Claflin.
On the whole though, Adrift is a perfectly competent dramatic thriller inspired by a real world story about survival in the face of intimidating odds. It's not a must-see in theaters for that reason, but the film certainly benefits from the enhanced visuals and audio that the big screen affords. Adrift further establishes Kormákur as a filmmaker whose speciality is bringing man vs. nature narratives to cinematic life and, at the same time, gives Woodley another noteworthy dramatic performance to add to her growing body of work. Those so inclined are thus advised to get lost at sea this weekend.
Adrift is now playing in U.S. theaters nationwide. It is 96 minutes long and is rated PG-13 for injury images, peril, language, brief drug use, partial nudity and thematic elements.
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