Director Baltasar Kormákur was something of a keen sailor when he was younger and the sea remains an old friend he has continued to return to throughout his career. 2002’s The Sea, set in his native home of Iceland, centred around a fisherman, and a decade later in The Deep he told the story of another fisherman trapped out in the freezing ocean. Even Contraband partly takes place on a cargo ship and Everest takes place on a mountain covered in frozen water.
His new effort, Adrift, recalls the real-life story of Tami Oldham (played by Shailene Woodley) whose journey across the Pacific with fiancé Richard (Sam Claflin) went disastrously awry in 1983 as they ran headlong into a vicious Category 4 storm before being cast adrift. No other characters come into focus in this two-hander, following their journey before, during and after the incident took place.
The opening of Adrift throws the viewer right into the heart of the drama, Tami coming-to bloody and battered inside a waterlogged and semi-capsized sailboat. She scrambles onto the surface screaming for Richard before the camera pulls back to reveal she is little more than a raindrop compared to the vastness of the ocean surrounding her on every side.
Kormákur jumps back five months to introduce us to Tami, a wandering spirit who has just arrived in Tahiti, working her way from country-to-country by picking up low-paid jobs and planning her next move on the hoof. It’s here she meets Richard, a fellow sea-lover who has just arrived on a 36-foot sailboat he built by hand. They strike up a bond, become lovers and hit the high seas to explore the world together.
Tami’s experience is an extraordinary one that is brought vividly to live at times by the physicality of Kormákur’s direction. There are moments when you feel every wave and movement of the boat, the isolation they are thrown into feeling viscerally real. The vast majority of Adrift was shot out on location at sea off the coast of Fiji, with very little added in post production (the CGI that is used in the film doesn’t hold up very well). Although, the effects aren’t really enough of a problem to bring onboard the water that drowns the soggy romance.
The human element feels as limp as a dead fish, with Woodley and Claflin’s romance lacking spark and never feeling like it ever leaves the page. Much of the blame comes down to Kormákur’s decision to keep flitting back and forth across timelines - first to show the beginning of their relationship before jumping forward to the aftermath of the storm, the two sides gradually making a whole. The end result is that any momentum that may have reared its head after spending more time with them in the early stages never has a chance to work up a head of steam.
Woodley is always an engaging presence onscreen and much of the work is left down to her once the pair float into calmer waters. She spends most of her time in Adrift battling against the elements, either partially or completely immersed in water, hungry, hallucinating and in desperate survival mode. She makes Tami’s predicament seem tangibly real at times in a performance that is always believable and immersive.
Whether it’s the waves crashing against the hull of their yacht or the patchy love story that is as elusive as dry land for Tami and Richard, there is very little subtlety to Kormákur’s latest effort. He’s hardly a director renowned for his gentle touch and he always excels in bringing the viewer into close contact with the raw elements of Mother Nature. But despite the usual high standard of performance from Woodley Adrift is let down by poor story structure, and a cut-and-paste romance that deserves to be castaway.