Film Review: Adrift

Two young soul mates battle for survival in the Pacific after a hurricane cripples their yacht.
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A survival tale set in the Pacific, Adrift uses filmmaking savvy to paper over a thin plot. A committed performance from Shailene Woodley (also one of the project's many producers) may help draw viewers, but they won't find much new here apart from technical dazzle.

Based on a true story, Adrift starts immediately after a hurricane has disabled a yacht crossing the Pacific to San Diego. Tami Oldham (Woodley) flails around a flooded cabin before dragging herself to the deck. Both of the yacht's masts are down. What's worse, she can't find her boyfriend, Richard Sharp (Sam Claflin).

Flashbacks bring Tami, a free spirit who supports herself with odd jobs while shipping from port to port, to Tahiti. But the arrival of Richard, piloting a sailboat he built in Africa, changes her mind. Hitting it off, the two are soon cruising the islands and talking about marriage.

Director and producer Baltasar Kormákur interrupts the flashbacks with progress reports on the post-hurricane yacht. The decision to play with time frames makes sense on some levels. It allows Kormákur to open the film with a bang. Background filler seems to have a deeper meaning, more suspense, with a killer storm lurking over the horizon. And whether watching the past or the present, viewers will be anticipating how Kormákur depicts the hurricane itself.

Unfortunately, most of the scenes in the past are just sappy. Romantic picnics, dancing in waterfront nightclubs, strolls along beaches all unfold in paradisiacal settings. But Tami and Richard have next to nothing interesting to say, even when talking about suicide and abandonment.

Post-hurricane dialogue is even worse, as the characters slowly starve and slip into hallucinations caused in part by dehydration. Meanwhile, the score by Volker Bertelmann, also known as Hauschka, telegraphs every moment of suspense, whether justified or not. Tami can't dip her toes into the water without the music suggesting imminent shark attack.

Survival films like White Squall or more recently All Is Lost work from similar incidents. Sails wrap around rudders, electronics fail, supplies are rationed, wounds fester. It's a limited repertoire that no number of Techno Cranes or submersible camera mounts can overcome, that flashbacks and monologues can’t broaden. And when the movie's one big plot twist becomes common knowledge, Adrift will seem even more like a stunt than a drama.

Despite all its flaws, Adrift builds to an emotionally powerful ending, one that is simultaneously melancholy and uplifting. Maybe it's Woodley's sincerity, her determination to do right by Tami's character. Or maybe it's Kormákur's skill at giving catastrophe a narrative shape. Against the odds, something gives Adrift real dramatic weight.

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