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True-Life Survival Drama Adrift Drowns Amid Choppy Storytelling

The latest stranded-at-sea thriller is hampered by a gimmicky narrative structure that diminishes inherent suspense in favor of manipulative schmaltz.
By Todd Jorgenson |

The exotic waters of the South Pacific have never looked as uninviting as in Adrift, which chronicles a harrowing true-life survival story by making an immediate splash before becoming waterlogged.

The latest entry in the recently burgeoning stranded-at-sea thriller subgenre is hampered by a gimmicky narrative structure that diminishes inherent suspense in favor of manipulative schmaltz.

As the film opens, Tami (Shailene Woodley) awakens in a flooded yacht in the middle of the ocean. Unsure how she got there, she frantically calls out for her companion, Richard (Sam Claflin), who’s nowhere to be found.

Some flashbacks gradually fill in the details of her predicament. Tami met Richard in Tahiti, where they bonded as free spirits hoping for some adventure and a fresh start. He was working as a sailor and fisherman when offered a lucrative opportunity by a couple of locals to sail their yacht to San Diego, which happens to be Tami’s hometown.

Although such a journey is perilous even for experienced sailors, Tami senses a chance to reconnect with her estranged family after using the month at sea to deepen her relationship with Richard, before disaster strikes. Trying to steer the broken boat toward Hawaii, she’s forced to remain resourceful for weeks amid dwindling supplies, uncertain weather, physical and psychological trauma, and decreasing chances of a rescue.

Working in tandem with Oscar-winning cinematographer Robert Richardson (The Aviator), Icelandic director Baltasar Kormakur (Everest) stages a spectacular shipwreck sequence among the visual highlights. His strategy of frequently bobbing the camera above and below the water’s surface is appropriately unsettling and captures the harsh elements.

The actors, especially Woodley (The Descendants), offer committed performances that meet the challenge of acting in such an isolated and deglamorized environment without traditional human interaction.

However, the screenplay — adapted from a memoir by Tami Ashcraft — too often feels padded to feature length when there’s really not enough drama, hallucinatory or otherwise, to justify it. Cutting back and forth between past and present at almost arbitrary intervals tends to undercut the tension and the emotional resonance.

Such issues are common for films of this type, and while it maintains a certain intimacy, Adrift too aggressively yanks at the heartstrings with cutesy romantic melodrama instead of trusting the inherent intrigue in the story. While Ashcraft’s real-life resilience is inspiring, the film struggles to stay afloat.

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