A tiger, or even a volleyball called Wilson, wouldn't go astray in Adrift. Instead, this seafaring survivalist drama attempts to keep afloat on the strength of Shailene Woodley's performance. The talented star can do many things, from bringing a semblance of life to the bland Divergent franchise, to comfortably holding her own against some of today's best actors in TV's Big Little Lies. But she's given a tricky task in this unremarkable drama, with Adrift wading through waters tackled by better, similar films, even though it's actually based on a noteworthy true story.
Woodley plays the real-life Tami Oldham, a restless twentysomething who finds herself in Tahiti in 1983. Eager to explore the world — and to avoid going home to San Diego — Tami is looking for her next globe-trotting adventure, but finds love instead with fellow sailor Richard Sharp (Sam Claflin). Their courtship is as quick and breezy as the wind their shared passion for boating relies upon, making the decision to take a friend's yacht nearly 6000 kilometres to America a relatively easy one. Once the couple are on their way, however, a thunderous hurricane has other ideas for their planned romantic journey.
With Oldham's ordeal having taken place more than three decades ago, director Baltasar Kormákur (Everest) and his team of three writers clearly hope that the details have slipped from the public's collective memory. Or, at the very least, that no one in the watching audience knows what happened or has ever read Oldham's memoir. They're the only reasons that can possibly explain Adrift's two storytelling missteps: sticking to a unimaginative formula and leaning too hard on its love story.When the movie isn't charting a course straight through the same territory previously traversed in All is Lost, The Mercy and Life of Pi (in the last decade alone), it's jumping backwards and forwards in its timeline to ramp up the amorous aspect of the narrative. To the film's detriment, neither following the usual template nor mixing a potential tragedy with romance proves anything other than routine.
Still, just as it takes grit to try to stay alive when nature trashes your boat in the middle of the ocean, it also takes fortitude and determination to play someone trapped in such stressful circumstances. Woodley is at her near-best as Oldham, never giving the plucky protagonist superhero-like strength or abilities, and never losing sight of both the physical and emotional toll that arises when you think your life is about to end. It's the same kind of empathetic portrayal that has served Woodley well across her career, and it's well-suited to this rare female-centric dive into the survivalist pool. Her co-star Claflin is given little to do other than take on the token love interest part. Pushing a determined woman to the fore and rendering the male character as a supporting player, it's a role-reversal that doesn't escape attention, although Adrift doesn't capitalise upon it as much as it could've.
As Everest illustrated, Kormákur is fond of tense true tales about courage in the face of seemingly fatal adversity. As his 2012 Icelandic movie The Deep also demonstrated, the filmmaker is similarly drawn to life-or-death exploits in the water. Adrift owes a little to both but falls somewhere in the middle; it's as driven by incident and spectacle as the former, yet also proves as intimate as the latter. As a result, when Woodley isn't stealing the show, her unforgiving surroundings — and Robert Richardson's (Breathe) glossy cinematography — jostlefor attention. Indeed, a stripped-back version of the story that simply focused on its star tussling with the sea would've made for compelling viewing. But by giving it the standard disaster flick approach and trying to tug at the heartstrings as well, Adrift sadly starts to sink.