‘Adrift’ cuts to calm seas, takes wind out of sails
When constructing a film like "Adrift," it's all about momentum. Whether it is the romantic or dramatic angle, for them to be effective, they should be constructed in such a way that we are slowly filled with mounting tension as to the outcome.
And while this is a more nuanced tale of oceanic survival than the more dressed-up B-movie offerings such as "47 Meters Down" and "The Shallows" (which were both engaging in their own ways), its interwoven chronology acts as an anchor when it should be the mainsail.
Shailene Woodley stars as Tami Oldham, a real-life, rudderless 20-something who has charted a globe-trotting course to escape a broken family life; this led her to a port of call in Tahiti where she meets Richard Sharp (played by Sam Claflin), a dashing sailor.
Richard left the British Naval Academy and now earns cash by navigating vessels from rich folk for them (at least once, as it's never actually made too clear that this is his "living").
Like the sails of Richard's boat, the two are willing to let their lives be led by where the day takes them, and there is a charming, youthful wanderlust to their roles, even though we are not really provided with more than a fleeting glimpse or two of what led them to their current situations.
Woodley, in particular, is able to shift from loving tenderness to fierce will within a few frames, and she brings a sincerity to her role that helps fill in the gaps in the script. It is because of her we believe in the romance and her need to be on the open seas. When Richard receives an offer to take a couple's boat back to its California harbor, Woodley, without words, demonstrates how she's willing to participate, but slightly disappointed that she is merely a stowaway on his journey.
En route, they encounter a massive hurricane that topples the craft and flings Richard from its deck.
When Tami spots Richard, he's severely hobbled with a shattered leg and broken ribs, so it must be her task to help get the tattered vessel back on course in an attempt to make land in Hawaii.
This is all well and good, but director Baltasar Kormákur cobbles both pre- and post-storm narratives together, apparently to leave the angry ocean money shot for the film's finale.
However, this actually undercuts the urgency and tension necessary to get viewers involved in natural-disaster narratives.
In fact, there is an early scene in which the headstrong Tami takes a sudden cliff dive after leading Richard to a remote waterfall that generates far more anxiety than the ultimate effects-heavy finale. Seeing that she has not resurfaced, Richard plunges after her only to find her peacefully meditating on the river floor.
Kormákur has learned little from "Everest," his 2015 disaster epic that also suffered from its disjointed storytelling. When "Adrift" should be taking its audience over successively larger waves to draw out the dread, he instead cuts to calm seas that take the wind out of our collective sails.