Structure sends 'Adrift' astray
A large and varied group of people has been lost at sea lately. Robert Redford in “All is Lost.” Suraj Sharma in “Life of Pi.” The soldiers of “Unbroken.” Blake Lively in “The Shallows.” It continues a long history of onscreen stories of survival in a terrifying and isolated place in the water, from Alfred Hitchcock’s less-referenced “Lifeboat” to the chilling “Open Water.”
Despite being based on a true story, “Adrift” does little more than bob alongside every other title in the human vs. sea genre. Part of this is an error in structure; rarely does a movie so suffer from a misjudgment in how it emphasizes its biggest set piece. This certainly happened when Clint Eastwood attempted to use the miraculous airplane landing as the climax of “Sully,” which only made the rest of the movie feel like filler. But that is a minor storytelling gaffe compared to “Adrift,” which destroys any hope of tension and minimizes the development and impact of its central relationship by employing a broken chronology, rather than a linear examination of a new, seemingly too-good-to-be-true relationship (as well as each individual’s own resolve) tested against the elements.
Shailene Woodley delivers her usual credibility, curiosity and strength as Tami, a quintessential traveler who in 1983 has been on the go for years and in Tahiti for five months when her sailboat, on its way to San Diego, encounters a devastating storm that separates her from her new boyfriend Richard (Sam Claflin, good enough). Some may have reduced “Adrift” to a reality-based love story between stars of young adult dystopias, considering its cast’s work in “Divergent” and “The Hunger Games.” Fortunately, the relationship between Tami and Richard has more substance than that, flickering with the discovery of effortless chemistry and also challenged when Richard wants to accept the job of sailing friends’ boat back to San Diego and Tami initially resists returning to her hometown. The actors capture both the spark of something new and special as well as how fragile that bond can be when conflict breaks through the twinkle.
Mostly, though, “Adrift” loses track of what might have been a compelling story contrasting the type of exotic, fantasy-level dates seen on “The Bachelor” and the type of everyday difficulties that couples experience in real life when they have to make decisions for themselves beyond how long to lie on the beach. Adapting the book written by the real Tami Oldham Ashcraft – which perhaps is a spoiler alert about Richard’s fate – a trio of credited screenwriters bounce between the life-or-death situation on the boat as Tami works to sustain herself while also find and then revive Richard, and the building of their relationship and the events leading up to the trip. It was meant to be just the start of an open-ended, joined life of traveling around the world, but fracturing the chronology deprives the movie of the full anguish that comes from a dream scenario interrupted by tragedy. Imagine if, say, “Jurassic Park” opened in the middle of the park being overtaken by dinosaurs, rather than building up to it. Whether chronicling humans’ relationship with science or their connections to each other and vulnerability in the face of nature, it is clear that growing close to the characters and then watching them fight offers a richer experience than alternating in time, as if viewers will get bored without returning early enough to action sequences.
Therein lies another glaring problem with “Adrift”: the action is both too well done and too conspicuous as CGI, with director Baltasar Kormakur’s fondness for swooping through openings in the boat’s floor escalating the sequence but distancing the movie’s connection to reality. This story already struggles to feel specific enough to be real, and a less-flashy filmmaking style would have brought the material appropriately down to earth. Instead, Kormakur (“Everest”) aims to play up the scope, which is jaw-dropping as a depiction of gigantic waves and somewhat fake-looking in capturing Tami and Richard experiencing them.
This issue emerges immediately, as the opening sequence of Tami waking in the flooding boat and eventually emerging on top of it to look out across the nothingness distances viewers from her perspective, alone and confused and scared. Kormakur zooms out, a high-angle shot meant to capture the vastness of her plight, but even that feels like it misses the overwhelming endlessness of water stretching in all directions. Meanwhile, trying to pay off the notion of her not being much of a sailor with her ultimate determination feels muted because of the structure, to say nothing of how they fade behind some corny, overdone approaches to the early stages of her dynamic with Richard. “When did you become so wild?” he asks her. “What? What does that even mean?” Tami responds. That type of exchange might reveal something deeper about how Tami wants to be perceived, perhaps a wanderer who refuses to be idealized as a fictional free spirit, or maybe someone who does gain satisfaction from being seen as unusual.
Instead, “Adrift” just follows this with clichéd lines like “I’ve never met anyone like you” set against bland acoustic guitar and lyrics about falling in love, with delayed emotional baggage about troubling family histories. With a stronger script that made its twist feel meaningful rather than a gimmick, “Adrift” might have made something of a somewhat timeless story of love’s power to rescue but also sometimes not being enough to do it literally. After all, Woodley nails Tami’s blend of lightness and grit, and enduring several weeks on a boat with seemingly no hope of rescue is an astonishing feat. With “Adrift,” something incredible and heartbreaking elicits only a shrug.
This review will be published in next year's edition of Magill's Cinema Annual. Click here to purchase copies of collections from previous years.