Mother Nature is a harsh mistress. Struggles against the elements have been depicted in film to stunning degrees. Then, there’s “Adrift.” A cliched romance torpedoes an otherwise compelling sea-based survival tale. In the quest to make the movie about more than just a fight to live, there’s a case of diminishing returns. Look at how J.C. Chandor made “All is Lost” solely about Robert Redford attempting to stay alive. Less was more there. Here, flashbacks, romantic sequences, and a desire to break up the tension impact the effectiveness. A more focused film would have been a better one. If nothing else, it would have better served its committed leading lady.
“Adrift” is successful in being a Shailene Woodley vehicle. The more things focus on her, even in the early going, the better it is. Woodley is a strong enough talent to have the whole thing on her shoulders. Trouble is, the production doesn’t trust that instinct. The more it looks for the couple’s aspect, or to attempt narrative tricks, the less it works. She’s portraying a real person, so it would have been better to just let her pay tribute to that individual, as opposed to what pops up here from time to time.
Based on a true story, we meet Tami Oldham (Woodley) as she’s living a life of wanderlust. Working odd jobs, she’s just arrived in Tahiti, with an aim to make that her next temporary home. No sooner does she settle in than sailor Richard Sharp (Sam Claflin) pulls in. They’re both immediately smitten, flirting for a short while before diving into a relationship. They have dreams of sailing all over the world, and they’re dreams that get a jump start when Richard gets a compelling offer. Friends of his would like him to take their boat from Tahiti to San Diego, which just happens to be Tami’s hometown. So, seeing it as a sign, they set sail. Unfortunately, they had no way of knowing that they’d be sailing directly into one of history’s most catastrophic hurricanes.
Stranded in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, Richard is injured and Tami is in over her head. Perilously off course, all seems lost. Even Richard, the experienced one, seems at a loss. Tami has a million to one shot that she wants to take, however. Perhaps, if all somehow goes right, they can plot a course for Hawaii and make it just before they starve to death. Thus begins a race against time. All the while, the film cuts back and forth between their plight and their romance back on land.
Shailene Woodley is excellent here. A more physical part than usual for her, it mixes her toughness with her sheer talent. You buy all of her emotional beats. Her chemistry with Sam Claflin is only mild, but that’s more due to the screenplay giving them very little to do. They’ve both succeeded in romances before, so it’s not on them. Woodley especially has aced those beats in “The Fault in Our Stars” and “The Spectacular Now,” for example, while Claflin has “Me Before You” under his belt. Woodley shines while fighting for her survival. You’re with her every step of the way. She’s gone the action route before with the “Divergent” franchise, but this is a compelling mixture of all of her myriad gifts.
As good as Woodley is, Claflin can’t hold up his end of the bargain. His performance is fine, yet wholly unremarkable. Paired with her, it creates a disconnect. Plus, their scenes together just don’t create sparks. That keeps things from succeeding as the powers that be intended. Elizabeth Hawthorne, Grace Palmer, and Jeffrey Thomas turn in small supporting performances, but this is definitely a two-hander.
Director Baltasar Kormákur contributes to the best and worst of “Adrift.” On the one hand, Kormákur and cinematographer Robert Richardson compose some breathtaking shots. On the other hand, the score from composer Volker Bertelmann is overly melodramatic and he puts too much stock in the script. Scribes Aaron Kandell, Jordan Kandell, and David Branson Smith add too much nonsense to this compelling true story. They craft a cliched romance that never shows why the couple would be in love. They say they are plenty, and they look affectionate, but the story never gets us to buy it. The decision by the writers and Kormákur to go back and forth in the plot between the romance and the survival is a misguided one, despite an effort to surprise in the third act. Simple just would have been better.
Had the focus just been on Woodley, “Adrift” may have worked. Focusing in on the resiliency of the human spirit, this could have been tense and thrilling. Instead, it keeps being undercut by a poorly developed love story. There’s just not a good balance. The focus needed to be on one or the other. Trying to walk that thin line ends up throwing the whole thing overboard. Woodley nearly saves the day, but the end result is just slightly to unsatisfying to recommend.