The clever use of two juxtaposed timelines in ‘Adrift’ largely succeeds in telling a survival story that is both suspenseful and sweet.
Adrift is based on a true story of love and survival. In 1983, two wandering souls, Tami Oldham and Richard Sharp, inadvertently sailed into the eye of Hurricane Raymond thereby stranding themselves in the middle of Pacific Ocean for 41 days. The film kicks off in the aftermath of the disaster – a disoriented Tami wakes up in a banged up boat with no sight of Richard. She wails with grief and desperation then the scene cuts back to an earlier time when they first met in Tahiti. From then, the narrative strategy becomes clear – to justify a survival story fueled by love, the film balances both aspects of romantic bliss and harrowing nightmare by flipping back and forth between two timelines (before and after the hurricane). It largely works, especially in aid of the satisfying third act revelation. However, in some instances, these erratically juxtaposed flashbacks diffuse the tension in the present. And for a survival film, you’ll need as much tension as you can muster.
That is not to say that the film does not have the sufficient amount of stakes to make it feel real. It actually shines in the illustration of the couple’s survival. Richard, the more experienced sailor, becomes the dead weight – he sustains a shattered leg and a broken rib cage, while the less experienced Tami does all the work. She has to rescue him, tend to their wounds, repair the sinking vessel, ration the dwindling supplies, catch some fish (coincidentally, she’s vegetarian) and resort to old-school navigation (i.e. relying on wind direction with no functioning motor or GPS at hand). Not to mention that the couple are constantly wet, sunburnt, seasick (and occasionally hallucinating) all at the same time. It’s easier watched than done.
While most true to life seafaring films like the The Finest Hours relegates its women to worried wives and relatives, Adrift feels refreshing because it places the female lead right to the center of action. Having starred in the Divergent franchise, Shailene Woodley is no stranger to strong independent roles but in here, she displays a performance that is stripped of vanity yet never lacking in grace. It also helps that the film plays on two timelines and we get to have a full spectrum of her character depth and range.
She shares a palpable chemistry with the melancholic Sam Claflin (who reminds us of a similar motionless role he played in Me Before You). Tami and Richard are both free-spirited drifters driven to sea by pure wanderlust and for the most part, the ensuing romance feels familiar – as if something that can be lifted from a Nicholas Sparks novel. This may not be the film’s strongest suit but it does enough to justify their whole relationship arc (from honeymoon phase to hopelessness), emphasizing the resilience of their love through thick and thin.
Icelandic director Baltasar Kormákur shows restrain in crafting a small-scale seafaring drama. By Hollywood blockbuster standards, the film could have entertained more with an elaborate plot or extreme cinematic thrills (sharks, anyone?) but part of its sincerity and intimacy comes from the subtle execution. To focus more on the story, he shoots the climatic storm sequence in the perspective of his characters rather than showcasing a full bravado of nature’s ferocity. For the aftermath scenes, cinematographer Robert Richardson is given more freedom to throw breathtaking yet uneasy bird-eye views of the ocean, reminding the viewers of its splendor and vastness. Also, one can say that the director and the cinematographer worked well together when most of the shots are limited to the fairly-sized boat, yet it still feels dynamic and multi-faceted.
Adrift easily evokes memories from recent survival films like the majestic love story of Jack and Rose in Titanic, the sumptuous imagery and religious awakenings in Life of Pi, the level of character introspection in 127 hours, the suspense and catharsis in Gravity, or Leonardo DiCaprio’s death-defying Oscar quest in The Revenant. Adrift does not steer into the uncharted territories of its subgenre, and it certainly can’t compete with any of those films mentioned but it still earns its merit being it is based on a true story. It remains to be a solid reminder that while human beings are inconsequential in the grand scheme of things, it is their love for each other that can withstand against all odds.
4 out of 5 stars
Distributed by Viva International Pictures, ‘Adrift’ is now playing in PH cinemas starring Shailene Woodley and Sam Claflin. Directed by Baltasar Kormákur and written by Aaron Kandell, Jordan Kandell and David Branson Smith. Based on the memoir, ‘Red Sky in Mourning: A True Story of Love, Loss, and Survival at Sea’ by Tami Oldham. Runtime: 96 minutes.