Movie Review: ADRIFT Sinks Under the Waves of An Ill-Conceived Script

Look yonder, toward the horizons of our dreams.

Non-spoiler alert: No sharks were harmed in Icelandic director’s Baltasar Kormákur’s (Everest, Contraband, The Deep) risk-adverse, competent adaptation of Tami Oldham Ashcraft’s survival-at-sea memoir, “Red Sky at Mourning: A True Story of Love, Loss, and Survival at Sea.” Sharks don’t make an appearance, let alone merit a mention, in the Shailene Woodley-starring romantic drama, Adrift. (“Adrift” applies to the central narrative event, a busted up sailboat stranded in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, the adventure- and experience-seeking characters intent on sailing around the world, and unfortunately, the meandering, repetitive narrative itself.) An early summer counter-programmer, Adrift might get lost amidst the sea of sequels, spinoffs/prequels, and franchise starters, but if nothing else, it serves as a keen reminder of both Woodley’s talents as a performer and her willingness to fully commit to a physically, emotionally, and mentally challenging role. Another non-spoiler alert: It’s not enough (far from it).

Working from a script credited to Aaron Kandell, Jordan Kandell and David Branson Smith, Kormákur applies a non-linear structure to Tami’s experiences, opening with Tami awakening, bruised, battered, and terrified, after a hurricane badly demolishes the sailboat she agreed to sail from Tahiti to San Diego, a 4,000-mile journey, with her then fiancé, Richard Sharp (Sam Claflin), a decade-older Brit and sailing pro who Tami met only a few months earlier. For Tami and Richard, the 4,000-mile journey was part of their sail-around-the-world plan, delivering the high-end, pricey sailboat for friends of Richard’s family, Peter (Jeffrey Thomas) and Christine (Elizabeth Hawthorne), in exchange for $10K, a non-negligible sum in 1983, and two first-class plane tickets back to Tahiti. For Tami, San Diego also represented returning to the family she left behind five years earlier.

Nothing, of course, went according to Tami and Richard’s plan. Once the hurricane hit, depicted here in predictably harrowing, CGI-aided fashion by Kormákur and a small army of visual effects artists, Tami’s initially left alone on the damaged sailboat, but Richard fortuitously survives, clinging to a capsized dingy just a few hundred feet away from Tami. Richard’s rescue creates more problems than it solves. While Tami and Richard are reunited, they have to share the meager resources Tami found aboard the sailboat. A badly injured, potentially gangrenous leg leaves Richard incapacitated, incapable of helping with the boat’s repairs or the calculations needed to steer the boat back towards Hawaii and potential rescue. As resources dwindle and an onscreen ticker marks off the days, Tami leaves her vegetarianism aside for canned sardines and later, the raw fish she captures on her own. They also face a fresh water shortage, heat, and sunburn.

Kormákur and his screenwriters “solve” one of the book’s problems — the grindingly repetitive nature of Tami’s efforts at survival — by introducing a narrative plot device that effectively removes the “true” in the “based on a true story” promotional materials for Adrift. Some moviegoers, specifically Adrift’s target audience (women, couples) might not mind or somehow find it emotionally true, if objectively false, but other moviegoers will justifiably feel cheated: Kormákur and his screenwriting team not only part ways with established narrative rules and the audience expectations that necessarily follow, but also break the social contract that exists between filmmakers and moviegoers (i.e., honest, authentic dealing) in exchange for sleight-of-hand, clichéd gimmickry that should be effectively banned from screenwriting toolkits for the next half-century (possibly longer).

That’s just one problem, however, among several. The folded, non-linear narrative contrasts Tami and Richard’s romance and the build-up to the hurricane with the immediate and long-term aftermath of the hurricane. The romantic scenes rarely stray from the conventional or the predictable, though Woodley and Claflin’s chemistry helps to keep audience interest otherwise engaged. The survival-at-sea scenes are no less conventional or predictable, but they suffer from repetition and sameness. The lack of variety or diversity in or between scenes, especially post-third-act reveal, makes for an increasingly unengaging, detached experience. By then, Adrift has turned into a dull wait-and-see again. We wait and see as near starvation turns Tami into an emaciated version of herself. We wait and see whether Richard will succumb to his injuries, starvation, or Tami’s instinct for self-preservation. Ultimately, however, we just wait and see for the obligatory photos, film, or video of the real Tami and Richard that signal Adrift has to come to a welcome end.

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Writer/editor for hire. Member: SFFCC, OFCS.

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