Doomed romance meets lost at sea in this film that tells the true story of Tami Oldham (Shailene Woodley) and Richard Sharp (Sam Claflin). Director Baltasar Kormákur is no stranger to the true story survival/disaster sub-genre, having previously directed both The Deep (2012) and Everest (2015) with Adrift allowing him to showcase his familiarity and capability with the sub-genre. Cutting between five months prior to the capsizing of their boat in the Pacific Ocean and the aftermath of the incident, Adrift tries to balance being a classic Hollywood romance and a classic Hollywood survival film with middling success. The doomed romance of the former always possesses a terrific tragic element while the survival element possesses strong tension and suspense at times, but the end result of putting the two together simply does not work with neither section able to fully assert itself before Kormákur cuts away to the other narrative.
The fear with trying to use this type of narrative structure is that the film could feel disjointed. Adrift does not necessarily suffer from this issue. However, it still suffers from issues brought forth by this structure. With a romance that, when viewed intermittently, delivers the gooey romance one would hope and with a lost-at-sea narrative that, when viewed intermittently, delivers a solid character study and peril, Adrift is able to keep itself afloat. Neither section can stand perfectly on its own, nor would the film work if it had started when Tami and Richard first met one another, building up to the capsizing, and then picking it up where Tami must try to survive on her own with a more typical, linear narrative. The two competing tones would have obliterated the film in its entirety. Thus, the decision to structure the film in such a way that it cuts between the two periods proves to be a necessary one by Kormákur . Unfortunately, this structure does presents its own flaws.
One such negative is in drama. The film opens with Tami already lost at sea. The capsizing has already happened. Desperately searching for Richard – who the film showed sinking to the bottom of the ocean – Tami panics, yelling out for him, and yelling in anguish for him. Coming at the beginning of the film, the moment is robbed of all of the emotion and tear-jerking quality it could have if positioned after the audience had spent half of the film watching their romance blossom in Tahiti with plans to travel the world together. The scene should rip the audience’s heart out, but it does not with none of the requisite emotional build-up or connection to the character to help the drama come to life. This mishandling of story is largely quite common with the film delving into its emotional highs too early.
One of the major issues brought by the structure is the twist. Opening with a shot of Richard literally sinking to the bottom of the ocean with Tami then shown panickedly calling out for him, the audience knows he is dead. Or, at least they should. It is all but spelled out for the audience. Add in a beyond improbable discovery by Tami that Richard was somewhere in the middle of the ocean clinging to a lifeboat and a statement by Richard in the romantic portion of the film that hallucinations often occur when one is alone at sea, Adrift once again spells out what is coming. Yet, Adrift does not trust the audience. With many of the scenes in the present occurring with Tami speaking to her hallucination of Richard who helps give her the strength to get through this ordeal, Kormákur tries to make it seem as though Richard could be there even if he has a compound fracture in his leg, fractured ribs, internal hemorrhaging, and multiple infections that would make survival either impossible or unlikely. By the time the film reveals that, surprise, he was a hallucination all along, Kormákur inexplicably plays it as a twist. Flipping back in time to show all of the clues left by the film and even showing him sinking to the bottom of the ocean for the second time, Adrift is practically insulting. It “spoils” its “twist” in the opening scene only to then turn around and play it is as a surprise which was truly baffling.
In terms of positives, Woodley and Claflin deliver very good performances, especially Woodley. Playing the incredibly inspirational and powerful Tami Oldham who was able to survive on her own in the middle of the ocean for 41 days with no sailing experience under her belt, Woodley perfectly disappears in the role. She has the youthful energy to capture the exuberance of Tami, the internal strength to capture her determination and fierce will to survive, and the hippie-chic appeal to capture the world traveler lifestyle lived by Tami. Whenever the film falters, it is Woodley who lifts it back up and brings it home. There are moments where she and the film falter together, but her strength and charisma throughout helps Adrift to cross the finish line as a flawed, but solid film. Alongside her, Sam Claflin is as charming as ever, making the perfect romantic interest for Woodley, while possessing a radiating adventurer’s soul that shines through whenever he speaks about sailing or seeing the world. The authenticity and endearing quality he brings to the character helps to elevate the film considerably.
Together, Woodley and Claflin often churn the film’s gooey romance into a deeply felt romance that largely works. With it being interwoven with their time “together” on the boat, the film does strike a rather nice tone to it with this love feeling quite grand and epic, whether they are running around Tahiti or Tami derives some strength from this hallucination of her love. The pair have considerable chemistry with one another, bringing great romantic energy to the table. While Adrift may not be a perfect film, it is one that is easily enjoyed thanks to this duo . It is hard to not get swept up in the emotion of it all with Adrift striking a nice, tragic chord. However, some of the film’s impact is reduced by the time jump narrative structure with Kormákur often trying to match a sentence or moment from different scenes to create a before-and-after effect. One such example comes as the pair start to plan their trip only for Adrift to then cut to Richard being dead and Tami talking to his hallucination. It is dramatic, but an example of how the film somewhat robs the romance scenes of some of their energy and catches the lost-at-sea scenes in the midst of its peril. As the film cuts between the past and present quite frequently, while still trying to fit into a 90-minute frame, Adrift is simply never able to develop enough to make either time period as impactful as it should be. Thus, while Adrift will appeal to both romance and action lovers, it will likely not be quite romantic enough or action-packed enough to satisfy audiences completely.
Visually, the plentiful shots of the landscape and terrain take full advantage of the film’s idyllic location with the frequent aerial shots doing a great job capturing Tami’s isolation. With her little boat practically disappearing in this massive ocean in the middle of two continents, the camera of DP Robert Richardson is able to capture the incredible odds she is facing. The romantic scenes in Tahiti similarly benefit from Richardson’s camera, using the dimmed lighting of night spots or in the boat owned by Richard to give all of the scenes a very warm feeling. Beyond the cinematography, the visual effects are equally as strong, especially during the accident. With a massive wave bearing down on them, their boat turns over and both of their bodies are thrown violently overboard or down into the boat. These effects help the moment really come to life, helping to elevate the immensity of the tragedy.
Though Adrift is visually arresting with great performances and a truly inspirational true story, the film is greatly flawed with neither enough romance or action to truly excel in either pursuit. Adrift will never be mistaken for a great film, but director Baltasar Kormákur is able to team up with two incredibly likable and talented leads to bring this true story to the big screen. While it may be a bit of a mixed bag, Adrift proves to be largely entertaining without overstaying its welcome.