Tired of comics and superheroes? Bummed out by Solo? If so, a pleasant surprise docks into theaters this weekend, the lost-at-sea/romance hybrid Adrift, the latest survival-drama from Baltasar Kormákur. Arriving during the doldrums of summer blockbuster season, Adrift depicts the inspirational true story of a young couple stranded in the middle of the Pacific. The subject matter is nothing innovative, and there is no such thing as subtlety here, but thanks to immersive direction and an all-hands-on-deck performance by Shailene Woodley, Adrift is ship-shape.
As an adaptation of the memoir Red Sky in Mourning by Tami Oldham Ashcraft, Adrift dramatizes the author’s incredible true story of being left stranded in the middle of the Pacific in a wrecked sailboat with her fiancé in 1983. In the film, world-traveling free spirit Tami (Shailene Woodley) travels to Tahiti and meets Richard (Sam Claflin), a passionate sailor, where they begin to fall in love, thanks to their shared sense of adventure. But when the couple accepts a job ferrying a sailboat across the Pacific Ocean, they run into hurricane Raymond, and disaster strikes.
The film opens on the aftermath of the devastating storm that leaves the couple in dire straits, and as the film progresses, the events occur on-screen via a split-timeline narrative device. The technique renders a rather straightforward concept more engaging, raising questions before information is divulged. But at the same time, much of what occurs between transitions is fairly superfluous, especially with the destination of the flashbacks already established. And yet, there is more here than meets the eye, with an impressive plot twist that flips everything on its head.
Adrift‘s director, Baltasar Kormákur, hails from Iceland, and has achieved success with his foreign-language action and drama films including Jar City, The Sea, and 101 Reykjavik. His first work to hit the states was the 2010 thriller Inhale, and has since helmed the Hollywood action productions Contraband and 2 Guns, each featuring Mark Wahlberg, but his most notable and relevant work here is his 2015 American survival-drama Everest. The film centered on expedition groups during the 1966 Mount Everest disaster, and grossed over $200 million worldwide.
In addition to Everest, Kormákur has applicable experience with his indigenous film The Deep from 2012, another survival-at-sea drama that featured the true story of a fisherman off the coast of Iceland. In Adrift, Kormákur draws on his pool of expertise with suspense and extreme environmental conditions to strong effect, delivering terrifying depictions of raging weather at sea. There is certainly no shortage of material involving stormy waters out there, but Kormákur’s refined talent with such content induces the familiar perils alarmingly effective in the moment.
What also elevates the film is a solid, committed performance from Shailene Woodley. As Claflin’s character is left incapacitated early on, the dramatic weight rests on the actress’s shoulders, and she does an admirable job in her best starring vehicle since The Fault in Our Stars. It’s nothing Oscar-worthy, but Woodley impresses at conveying both Tami’s terror and reckless determination. Claflin, though milquetoast and donning a questionable English accent at times, is well-cast opposite Woodley in a wise pairing that leaves the couple’s bond convincing.
What holds Adrift back, though, yet not fatally so, are its stylings as a traditional romance, which expose the film to nearly every genre trapping in the rulebook. But contrary to what you would expect, the film’s greatest sin is simply conventionality, rather than reliance on glaring clichés. As it oozes shoehorned passion throughout, the film is sure to prove too manipulative for some viewers, but what ultimately makes Adrift work is its script by David Branson Smith and Aaron and Jordan Kandell, which imbues its characters with more depth than your typical romance.
Tami, the daughter of a 15-year-old mother, was primarily raised by her grandparents, and watched her biological father fall into fits of rage as he was barred from entering her house. As soon as she turned 18, she left home as fast as she could to escape and see the world. Richard similarly didn’t have it easy, with a mother who hanged herself when he was just a child. These characterizations are inevitably pulpy when translated to the screen, and much of the dialogue toes the line between forced and poignant, but the efforts here are refreshing nonetheless.
The film evokes another recent example of the survival/romance combination, The Mountain Between Us from last summer. Both works feature startling environmental conditions and agreeable dramatic material, yet both are guilty of inclinations toward tired romantic tropes. What Adrift offers that The Mountain Between Us did not, however, is a reasonably-cast pairing of lead characters and a moderately cunning script capable of a few surprises. The film hammers its point home of love’s power with no sense of grace, but it’s a powerful message even so.
STXfilms, Lakeshore Entertainment, Ingenious Media, RVK Studios, Huayi Brothers Pictures.
Directed by Baltasar Kormákur.
Written by Aaron Kandell, Jordan Kandell, and David Branson Smith. Based on Red Sky at Mourning: A True Story of Love, Loss, and Survival at Sea by Tami Oldham Ashcraft and Susea McGearhart.
Starring Shailene Woodley and Sam Claflin.
Released June 1, 2018.