Adrift opens with a beautifully choreographed single take sequence where Tami Oldham (Shailene Woodley) finds herself stranded on the remains of her sinking sailboat after it has been struck by a wave that would make Poseidon blush. As she wades through the flood below deck all the way up to the battered bow, we feel as though we’re following her on broken legs. Sure, it’s a survival scenario that we have seen in a million other films before but a little craftsmanship goes a long way. Director Baltasar Kormákur (Everest, 2 Guns) never pretends to be breaking new ground here. This is a cheesy romantic yarn with heart stopping danger thrown in, through and through. However, this one stands on the shoulders of talented performers and filmmakers who elevate basic material to solid summer entertainment.
Woodley gives one of her strongest turns to date as Oldham, a woman who finds herself having to do all of the legwork on her own, considering that her beau Richard’s (Sam Claflin) legs are hanging by a thread. She throws herself completely into this role, capturing all of the rage, stress, delirium and even occasional moments of warmth that this horrific outing brings. We also get to see her sweeter side in the sequences before the boat is hit, with the story being told out of order, flashing back and forth. These moments are also where Claflin shines. He is an absolute charmer, a true romantic leading man. We get as swept up with him as she does. Unfortunately, Claflin doesn’t quite measure up in the more intense stretches. He’s certainly not bad, there’s simply a noticeable difference between he and Woodley’s ability to soak up the emotion in a scene.
Kormákur’s direction is terrific, keeping us submerged in suspense. He goes for wide, long takes whenever possible, which make every scene feel naturalistic. When we’re watching Woodley and Claflin bounce off each other, the dialogue feels less written (an achievement, with this script) and more spontaneous. When it’s time to get in the water, we’re thrown right in with our characters. The camera bobs in and out of the raging sea, equality balancing a sense of beauty and calm with the unpredictability and terror that the elements bring about. Meanwhile, the decision to tell the story out of order does wonders for the pacing. We’re never asked to be in one mode for too long and the beats within each segment mirror each other nicely. These elements are what bring this story to life above all else and show that Kormákur’ is ready to graduate beyond these journeyman studio movies.
Adrift starts to run into trouble when it relies too heavily on its screenplay. While never glaringly terrible, the dialogue often falls into cheesy cliches that regular people do not think of moment to moment. Claflin, in particular, is given some Nicholas Sparks level groaners about how the sea brought him to Tami that Woodley even acknowledges are rough. However, there are only so many instances where you can make a jab at a bad line before it starts to seem lazy. The film also ends on a twist that feels like a big fat “gotcha!” It’s melodramatic and manipulative, exactly in tune with the lesser films of this type. It does serve as a decent emotional punch here because of how invested in the characters we’v become but could’ve easily sunk it under different circumstances.
Early on, there’s a moment where Woodley vomits up a lung, offscreen. This points to the air of movie star glamour within the proceedings that does dull some of the visceral elements. Since we need to keep these actors somewhat pretty at all times, they can never be shown getting too injured, sick, or upset. Sure, their makeup flakes and they have a couple gnarly cuts but it never feels completely realistic. This story that stands at odds with being a romantic star vehicle and with an approach that perhaps moved in a more 127 Hours-esque direction, it could’ve been an awards contender.
While Adrift certainly is the soapy story of endurance and romance that has been advertised, it is as well-crafted one could ask for from that blueprint. Woodley and Claflin draw us in, Kormákur keeps us hooked. It never dares to be as dangerous as the story it depicts but does an admirable job of playing it safe. In this summer blockbuster climate where films have to either sink or swim, one forgets that treading water sometimes does get the job done.