Adrift: Lost-at-Sea Drama Buoyed by Cast but Sunk by Odd Narrative Choices

By Kim Hughes

Rating: B

There’s plenty to like and to dislike about Adrift, the new fact-based disaster drama with Divergent star Shailene Woodley and Briton Sam Claflin (Me Before You, The Hunger Games) as an adventurous, knock-kneed couple who face the gargantuan misfortune of sailing into the path of a hurricane.

Clafin and Woodley as lovers in dangerous times.

Clafin and Woodley as lovers in dangerous times.

In the plus column, there’s committed performances from the leads, some truly white-knuckle action sequences conducted by Icelandic director Baltasar Kormákur — who similarly thrilled in 2015’s Everest and is abetted here by ace cinematographer Robert Richardson — and the added gravitas of this being a true story. 

In the minus column: a treacly romance, a plot device that begs credulity, and the fact that, as a true story, we have some idea of how things will turn out despite Kormákur’s scribbly, to-and-fro storytelling approach, which places the climactic wreck near the end of the movie, building considerable tension but meandering some along the way.

It's 1983. Woodley plays Tami Oldham, a free-spirited 23-year-old American knocking around the globe. She finds home in Richard Sharp (Clafin), an older but similarly peripatetic British sailor who, like Oldham, has serendipitously landed in the South Pacific on route to his next adventure. 

A proposition by a wealthy older couple to captain their private yacht to California makes financial sense to the smitten lovers who stow their other plans. The boat ain’t bad, either. Tami and Richard set off, but before long disaster strikes

The movie makes hay of the terrifying notion of being stranded in the middle of the ocean without communication gear, dwindling food and water supplies, and the very real chance of a slow and agonizing death. There’s a reason lost-at-sea movies are a thing; I still haven’t quite shaken off the palpable horror of 2003’s Open Water, a film with a premise so prosaic — and therefore so damn possible in real-life (and it did actually happen) — that a therapist should have been standing by post-screening.

That said, the shipwreck bar, if we can call it that, has already been set rather high: witness Unbroken, In the Heart of the Sea, and Robert Redford’s oft-overlooked but devastating All Is Lost which certainly didn’t require novelty to scare the pants off viewers. 

Yet Adrift doesn’t entirely trust that the fundamental horror of being adrift will sustain it.  So, Kormákur introduces a dramatic sidebar of sorts to ramp up the action and further underpin the already deeply established love story angle. The reveal is at once silly and kind of predictable — well, to anyone who saw Titanic, and there are a few of those. 

One also suspects that Kormákur and his scriptwriters (Aaron Kandell, Jordan Kandell, and David Branson Smith) were uncertain that a woman at the centre of an action/adventure would broadly compel viewers the way a male lead would. I’d argue the prospects of a scrawny, injured, and drifting 23-year-old chick are far slimmer and therefore more enthralling than those of a strapping experienced sailor, but who am I?

Adrift. Directed by Baltasar Kormákur. Starring Shailene Woodley and Sam Claflin. Opens wide June 1.