Three years after watching teams of climbers struggle to survive their adventure on the eponymous mountain in Everest, Baltasar Kormakur offers a much more intimate survival tale in Adrift, setting two free-spirited lovers off into the Pacific Ocean and seeing how they fare after their ship is disabled by a hurricane. Heavily focused on exploring the magical months the young couple spent together before the accident, the film is likely to appeal to young romantics who know stars Shailene Woodley and Sam Claflin from YA-targeted pictures and the Hunger Games and Divergent series. If the part of the movie devoted to endurance lacks the harrowing power of, say, 2013’s All Is Lost, it at least gives Woodley the opportunity to convincingly sink her teeth into a plum dramatic lead role as a young woman fighting fiercely against the forces of nature (instead of a dystopian civilization).
Woodley’s Tami, you see, is forced to do all the work after the shipwreck, as her fiance Richard (Claflin) was thrown violently from the boat in the storm and badly wounded. After the storm passes, she’s forced to make duct-tape repairs by herself and contemplate her own likely death before spotting Richard, clinging to a dinghy, on the horizon. She gets him aboard, sets the broken bones that are visible (he clearly has serious internal injuries) and spends the rest of their days playing nurse to her barely conscious companion while trying to navigate their broken yacht toward Hawaii.
Even before the terms of this sink-or-survive drama settle into place, the screenplay has tossed us back five months, watching the 23-year-old Tami arrive in Tahiti. An American doing odd jobs as she makes her way around the world, she shrugs when a customs officer inquires about her “final destination.”
Tami learned to sail in San Diego, and has found work in a marina when she catches the eye of a new sailor in port: Richard, a handsome Brit, built his own ship while working in South Africa and has since sailed the oceans by himself. They’re perfect for each other, and soon are going off on long journeys — her proving her merit as a sailor and him revealing his sensitive nature. “When did you become so wild?” he marvels at her. “What does that even mean?,” she replies, as if rootlessness were all she could conceive of.
Tami briefly demonstrates her aversion to being tied down when a rich couple asks Richard to sail their luxury craft to California. She’d love a long spin on this boat, but the trip sounds too much like going home, and she doesn’t want to play tag-along on someone else’s adventure. They work that issue out, and soon are pointed northward, not suspecting the record-breaking storm they’ll shortly encounter.
The script’s frequent jumps back-and-forth from this picture-postcard romance to the dire present tense make it hard for Kormakur to really make us feel as trapped as Tami and Richard are on this boat. They blister in the sun and go loopy from thirst, ration out tins of food and struggle to keep their limping boat on course, and Tami’s spirit drops as it becomes harder and harder to keep Richard from simply drifting off into delirium. “I wish you hadn’t met me,” he laments in one of his increasingly rare moments of alertness. When she replies that she wouldn’t trade their relationship (and hence this tragedy) for anything, one wonders if maybe she’s enjoying the same frequent romantic flashbacks we’ve been watching.
DP Robert Richardson makes those memories persuasively paradisiacal, his underwater photography almost impossibly crystalline as our barely clad heroes frolic in one tropical hideaway after another. Even when the film starts, quite late, to shift its attention mainly to grim endurance — and in flashback, to offer a brief but frightening look at the fateful storm itself — it’s hard not to think that those months of happiness are all we’re really supposed to remember of Adrift.
Production company: RVK Studios
Distributor: STX Entertainment
Cast: Shailene Woodley, Sam Claflin
Director: Baltasar Kormakur
Screenwriters: Aaron Kandell, Jordan Kandell, David Branson Smith
Producers: Baltasar Kormakur, Aaron Kandell, Jordan Kandell, Shailene Woodley
Executive producers: Ralph Winter, Andrea Scarso, Tom Rosenberg, Wang Zhongjun, Robert Simonds
Director of photography: Robert Richardson
Production designer: Heimir Sverrisson
Costume designer: Amanda Neale
Editor: John Gilbert
Composer: Volker Bertelmann
Rated PG-13, 96 minutes