If Kormákur would have been willing to keep the focus on the battle with the sea, then perhaps Adrift would have carved a truly unique place for itself.
Tales of adventure on the high seas are one of film’s most enduring subgenres, with such varied highlights as Hitchcock’s 1944 thriller Lifeboat, Spielberg’s 1975 blockbuster Jaws, Zemeckis’ 2000 man-and-volleyball-buddy-flick Cast Away and Lee’s trippy, tiger-striped 2012 tale The Life of Pi. Cases could be made for The Poseidon Adventure, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, Open Water. The Perfect Storm and All is Lost, and that’s ignoring the sub-sub-genres of submarine films, pirate pictures and stories about friendly sea creatures. What all of these films have in common is that each has a standout prop/character: the shark from Jaws, Pi’s tiger or Cast Away’s volleyball. This isn’t to say that ocean-set films need a gimmick; rather, it is that humanity’s mythic relationship with the ocean is as well-trod as it is appealing and films about that relationship are best when they feature a unique selling point. Icelandic director Baltasar Kormákur’s Adrift is well-made, but it lacks any characteristics that it can truly call its own. As a result, the film doesn’t quite live up to its more illustrious brethren.
Adrift is based on the true story of Tami Oldham (Shailene Woodley) and Richard Sharp (Sam Claflin), a couple who in 1983 decided to sail 4,000 miles from Tahiti to San Diego. Unfortunately, Hurricane Raymond took an unexpected turn and caught the two experienced sailors off-guard. The film adheres to this set-up rather faithfully except that the action starts in Fiji (where much of Adrift was filmed on location) rather than Tahiti. After their run-in with the hurricane, Tami and Richard’s yacht is trashed, their communications equipment is ruined and Richard is gravely injured.
Adrift in many ways continues the fine work Kormákur displayed in 2015’s Everest, a solid, tense, vividly-filmed, based-on-a-true-story survival flick, but it also shares that film’s primary weakness, which is that the human drama gets in the way of the film’s core strength. In Everest, that strength was the high-altitude tension. In Adrift, the driving force is Shailene Woodley’s Tami. Adrift is best in its middle section, where Tami is forced to MacGyver transportation, shelter, food and water in the aftermath of the cataclysmic storm. Woodley’s determined face is well-suited for the role of Tami, as is the easy athleticism that made her such a good fit for the Divergent series. Her Tami is a compelling screen heroine, and the film’s love story (embellished from its real-life inspiration for cinematic purposes) gets in her way. Rather than work in service to the story, the romance feels like an attempt to reel-in Woodley’s Divergent and The Fault in Our Stars fans.
This isn’t to say that the romance doesn’t work; Woodley and Claflin have excellent chemistry and Adrift does have some genuinely romantic moments. But Adrift, at its core, is about a woman’s fight for her own life, and Kormákur and writers Aaron Kandell, Jordan Kandell and David Branson Smith would have been wise to emphasize this rather than distract from it.
Woodley’s strong performance is supported by Robert Richardson’s cinematography, which so intelligently captures both the beauty and terror of the water that the ocean deserves above-title billing alongside Woodley. Richardson, a three-time Oscar winner, uses his camera to turn the Pacific into a villain, a lover, a mystery and a god. Outside of some distracting blips in the quality of the special effects, Adrift is visually mesmerizing, even in its most violent moments.
If Kormákur and company would have been willing to keep the focus on Woodley’s Tami and her battle with the sea, then perhaps Adrift would have carved a truly unique place for itself in its packed subgenre. As it stands, the strength of its performances and cinematography certainly qualify it as a good film. It just isn’t a brave one.