Adrift tells the harrowing true story of a newly formed couple that is left adrift at sea after a hurricane has wrecked their sailboat. Thrown completely off course with no radio (or cell phones, this takes place in the 1980s), and little food or water the pair have one shot to turn their ship towards Hawaii. But if they miss, then it is nothing but open ocean until Japan.
Adrift comes not too long after the 2013 film, All is Lost starring Robert Redford. Similarly, in All is Lost, a sailor finds himself in a race against time to make it to land or the shipping lanes as his boat is badly damaged after an accident at sea. No doubt Adrift will draw comparisons to All is Lost but unlike the latter movie, Adrift is based off a real story and unlike a movie like A Perfect Storm (which is supposedly based off a real story), Adrift attempts to inject realism and fact into the narrative at large.
Adrift is also a duel story. Adrift is not just a story of survival but it is also a story of a young love forming between a young woman named Tami (played by Shailene Woodley) and a young sailor named Richard (played by Sam Claflin). Adrift, directed by Baltasar Kormákur, jumps back and forth between two timelines. The first one being the couple adrift at sea and the other when they first meet each other. As the movie continues, eventually the two storylines begin to converge and we finally see the storm that caused them to be lost at sea in the first place.
Adrift is a movie that has the spine of a great movie but doesn’t have the execution of one. While the movie is gorgeously shot by the director of photography Robert Richardson and features a strong and raw performance from Shailene Woodley, Adrift lacks a strong sense of tension which is undermined by the movie’s structural choices.
Adrift is a story that does deserve to be told. It is an incredible story of survival, perseverance, and love against seemingly impossible odds. The fact someone went through this is quite amazing and even borders on horrifying. Never mind masked killers, the open ocean is the real horror of this Earth. The ocean is also beautiful. With Adrift we get to see both sides of the ocean, the beauty, and the damage mother nature can do. Between a keen eye from director Baltasar Kormákur (who previously directed another tale of survival against nature, Everest) and Robert Richardson as DP (who has previously worked with the likes of Martin Scorsese), this is a gorgeous looking movie. While I was haunted by the deadly nature of the sea, I was also taken in by the beauty of it.
A key mistake was made in the making of this film, the choice of structure. Adrift is a movie told in a non-linear fashion. The movie doesn’t occasionally go back to the past, it feels like every scene we transition back and forth. Not only does this cause a wild juxtaposition (that could work but only occasionally) but it means we don’t get enough time in those moments to feel the weight of Tami and Richard’s plight. We’re so aggressively yanked back to the good old happy days where they fall in love but then shot forward in a fierce tale of survival. This puts the movie very much at odds with itself.
I humbly present a simple solution. This story of Adrift only works if we feel the length and magnitude of being lost at sea. As it stands, jumping back and forth not only causes a clash of tones but it also creates a safe haven for the audience when the going gets tough on the sailboat. There shouldn’t be this safe haven in this movie. Along with that, the drama played between Tami and Richard doesn’t work well in the first half of the movie because we have hardly spent any time with them. The movie needs to have that relationship concrete before the storm brews; we need to feel that long sense of isolation at sea, and by making the movie linear we also are making the movie far more engaging. With the disparate timelines, the storm scene comes far too late in the movie; we already know what happens to them which removes all tension.
Aside from the beautiful photography, what keeps this movie afloat (pardon the pun) is the performances by our two main actors. Sam Clafin, of Hunger Games fame, gives a reserved performance but has a loving nature and good chemistry with his co-star, Shailene Woodley. Woodley has not blown up the way some other actresses of her age recently have (like Jennifer Lawrence) and perhaps that is because she has been stuck in the Divergent franchise (which started off some promise but quickly fell apart). Adrift is a reminder of the level of talent that Woodley showed off with The Descendants back in 2012. Woodley has a natural, every girl charm about her. She feels natural in the love scenes with Sam Clafin, and she goes to some dark places after the storm hits. She is bruised both physically and emotionally with Woodley riding the line between determined and hopeless. I wish there were more scenes that really slowed down and got to linger more on her acting because she clearly had a level of passion and dedication to the role that is infectious.
Adrift is not a bad movie, it is a serviceable one. It is watchable and will more than likely hit its target audience in the right way. Woodley gives one of the most intense performances of her career and the movie is gorgeous to look at. Still, the decision to structure this movie in a non-linear fashion robs the movie of tension and connection with our main characters plights and journeys. It is amazing that this one decision really does hurt the movie as a whole which is a shame considering how a good many things are in Adrift.