In terms of opening scenes, Baltasar Kormákur’s true-story survivalist drama opens with a doozy: A young woman, bloodied and barely conscious, suddenly jolts awake. She’s below deck in a boat, which is filling up with water fast; you can hear the vessel creaking and groaning ominously all around her. A wave comes out of nowhere, knocking her back down. Sputtering, gasping, crying, our injured heroine – hey, that’s Shailene Woodley! – keeps trying to find an exit. She desperately climbs over, dives under and claws through the debris, in what appears to be an unbroken shot (or the well-crafted illusion of one) for an agonizingly long time. Eventually, she fights her way out of this non-metaphorical sunken place and into the sunlight – at which point the camera continues pulling further and further back, revealing that not only is this unlucky sailor alone on a wrecked ship, but the ship itself is merely a speck in a vast, empty ocean. Water, water, all around ….
Adrift then proceeds to ping-pong between how we got to this moment and what happens next. Five weeks earlier, Woodley’s Tami Oldham was just another fresh-faced, free-spirit schooner-hopper who landed in Tahiti, merely skipping from one maritime gig to the next, no end destination and no grand plan in mind. (Bonus points for the movie’s double-meaning title.) She’s content to spend her days surfing and doing odd jobs on the dock until she meets Richard. As played by Me Before You hunk Sam Claflin – whose last name is a Latin word that means “inhumanly square-jawed and handsome” – he’s a Disney prince come to life, who builds his own boats and re-enacts the From Here to Eternity makeout scene as a straight-outta-coffeehouses acoustic jam plays on the soundtrack. They’re smitten. He jumps off cliffs into swimming holes with her. She even makes the picture wall on his bachelor-pad ship. It’s that serious.
So one minute, Richard is telling Tami that “I sailed half the world to find you”; the next, she’s pulling his injured, clinging-to-a-dinghy body back onto their trashed floating prison, setting a splint around the bone sticking out of his leg. One second considering an elderly couple’s offer to sail a houseboat back to San Diego; the next, she’s duct-taping a hole in the side of said ship and they’re getting orgasmic over a random jar of peanut butter after having eating nothing for ages. This is the rhythm Adrift tick-tocks to, contrasting the couple’s swooning tropical courtship with the terrifying experience of being marooned at sea with no land or end in sight. (If you followed the real-life story, then you know exactly how long this endurance test will last … and the final tally of days is daunting.) There’s a worst-case scenario counterpart to every scene of romantic bliss, a flip side to paradise that’s problem-solving your way out of sinking to the bottom of the Pacific.
As a director, the Icelandic Kormákur is a master of disaster – he also did the 2015 climbing-expedition-gone-awry chronicle Everest, though it’s his 2012 nautical true-tragedy The Deep that served as a less-than-dry run for what happening here. He’s also a lot more agile in staging act-of-God set pieces like that bravura opening shot or the monster storm that eventually sets them on an All Is Lost test of wits against Mother Nature, if the landlocked pre-accident sequences are any indication. No matter how gorgeous the scenery or how inventive this Shangri-La is shot (and Oscar-winning cinematographer Robert Richardson can get creative with the best of them – dig that God’s-eye view of a hiking trail), there’s a slightly stilted feel to all of those scenes that reeks of finger-drumming impatience. It’s as if everyone involved is simply waiting to get the talky-talky stuff, i.e. the chemistry and character establishment that is supposed to make us care about these people being tossed around, out of the way so they can get to the trailer moments. Gotta get those asses in seats. Gotta set up those Oscar-clip reels and climactic real-person montages.
What keeps Adrift from feeling like just a travelogue tacked on to a tragi-sploitive star vehicle is, ironically enough, its star. Shailene Woodley has always been great when it comes to bringing the radiance – she’s like a sunbeam made sentient – and even better when she can use that California Dreamin’ glow semi-subversively a la The Spectacular Now or The Descendents. She can also do steely, as her YA detour in the wobbly Divergent series proved, though she might as well have been another special effect among the sound and fury. Here, Woodley takes those two sides and lets them play off each other, suggesting both a twentysomething’s wanderlust flightiness and the sort of REI-branded resolve needed to sell Oldham’s hell-and-high-water experience. (This would make a great double feature with The Shallows.) She’s equally believable meditating nude on deck or doggedly fixing a busted-up halyard, and even within the movie’s extreme IRL circumstances, it’s some of the most nuanced work she’s done outside of Big Little Lies. See this for her. The above-the-title name is the eye of the storm.