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Non-Review Review: Adrift

Adrift is a visceral and powerful survival thriller, based on the remarkable true story of Tami Oldham.

In the mid-eighties, Oldham became a figure of note following a disastrous journey into the Pacific with her fiancé Richard Sharp. Sailing from Tahiti to San Diego, their luxury yacht is caught in the middle of Hurricane Raymond. The ship is damaged, the pair separated. Waking up in the flooding living compartment, Oldham is forced to improvise in order to survive. It is a harrowing scenario, a story of a woman essentially wrestling against the elements in a desperate attempt to stay alive in a seemingly impossible situation.

Sail away with me…

The basic premise of Adrift is familiar. It recalls any number of powerful lost-at-sea narratives, from All is Lost to Cast Away to The Mercy. Director Baltasar Kormákur wrings as much tension as possible from the premise, perhaps drawing on his experience working on similar ocean-themed movies like The Sea or The Deep. At certain points in Adrift, the audience is liable to feel claustrophobic, to gasp for breath as the camera whirls and struggles against the oppressive force of nature.

Adrift suffers slightly from a sense of over-familiarity, and from a clumsy plot development that it chooses to play as a big twist rather than an organic narrative element. Nevertheless, Adrift is a tense story of survival in impossible circumstances.

Mast-er and commander.

In some ways, Adrift suffers in comparison to the more obvious examples of this sort of survival drama. The film has an impressive central performance from Shailene Woodley as Tami Oldham, but that performance cannot measure up to Tom Hanks’ work in a similar role in Cast Away. Similarly, Baltasar Kormákur creates a palpable sense of dread and anxiety that comes close to capturing the tension that J.C. Chandor fostered in All is Lost, but Adrift lacks the courage of its convictions and repeatedly cuts away from these claustrophobic sequences to a more conventional narrative.

Adrift is at once similar enough to invite comparisons to these films, but never distinguishes itself in competition. This is a shame, as Adrift works very well when taken on its own merits. There is something very appealing in the idea of a survival drama, in the premise of characters pushed well outside their comfort zone and forced to survive in a hostile environment with nothing more than their wits to protect them. The protagonists of these sorts of thrillers are, by their nature, a likable bunch. They are the ultimate underdogs, relying on sheer determination to survive.

The end is steer.

Adrift very elegantly captures the stakes and the peril. During the storm sequences, the camera spins and swirls, disorienting the audience in a manner that captures the chaos and confusion of these real-life conditions. There are points when it almost feels like the audience is likely to get blown away, as the camera buckles and swerves under the pressure of the simulated high winds. There is a visceral and dynamic quality to these sequences, which feel genuinely horrific.

At the same time, Kormákur also skillfully captures the horror of the other extreme, the idea of the Pacific as a giant blue desert; an empty water-filled wasteland without any human compassion in sight. It is to Kormákur’s credit that Oldham seems in peril even when drifting across the still sapphire surface of the calm and boundless ocean. The aerial shots keep the yacht out of the centre of the shot, as if to emphasis how lost it is and how isolated. When Oldham ventures into the water, the camera itself struggles to maintain its balance above the water line.

Off course, of course.

Adrift suffers slightly from the decision to intercut this tense survival drama with sequences lifted from a much more conventional biography, focusing on the relationship between Tami and Richard that led the two of them into the path of Hurricane Raymond. The beats in this story are familiar and routine, as two wanderers and adventurers find themselves drawn into one another’s orbit. Richard is a man who plans to sail his own yacht around the world. Tami is a woman who just longs to travel.

These scenes are often charming and effective, but they undercut the intensity of the sequences on the boat. They offer the audience a reprieve, a chance to catch their breath. As a result, they diminish the intensity of the sequences in which Oldham is struggling to keep the ship above water. They suggest that the character’s primal desire to survive is somehow not enough to root the audience’s investment, that there has to be more.

Out and aboat.

To be fair, Adrift also benefits from the strong central performance of Shailene Woodley. Woodley brings a charm and honesty to Oldham, fleshing out what might otherwise be a fairly rote and stock character. Adrift is based upon Tami Oldham’s memoir of her experiences, but the script reduces her character to a familiar set of tropes. Adrift works best in its smaller moments, focus on Woodley’s face as she silently contemplates the situation in which she has found herself, and when she wrestles with the question of what it will take to survive this whole experience.

The biggest issue with Adrift is a plot development that the movie chooses to treat as a big reveal. The ebb and flow of Adrift will be familiar to anybody with any understanding of the narrative conventions of these types of survival dramas. More than that, the story of Tami Oldham is relatively well-known. As a result, the ways in which Adrift chooses to play with the details of what happened, and how it chooses to narrativise certain elements, can feel just a little bit cynical.

Plain sailing.

This aspect of Adrift adds an extra layer of tragedy and character development to the drama. However, the movie approaches it in the wrong way. Adrift treats this development as a climactic twist. This avenue to the material doesn’t work because it never manages to convincingly wrong-foot the audience. Adrift plays entirely fair with its audience, and so cannily sets up this development in its early scenes. However, while the film takes care to set up this inevitable reveal, it still conceals the mechanics until the last minute.

The result somewhat undercuts the effectiveness of the story. A more efficient version of Adrift might lay its cards out from the beginning, playing with the audience rather than trying to compete against them. The result is that Adrift never seems as clever as it thinks that it is being. However, Adrift is charming enough that this isn’t a fatal flaw. The movie might work too hard to preserve what it believes to be a narrative surprise, but there is enough going on around that aspect of the movie that its failure doesn’t sink the rest of the movie.

Sea you later.

Adrift is anchored in powerful direction and a strong central performance, even if it is undercut by an overly conventional and occasionally too-pleased-with-itself script. Adrift is a worthy addition to the “lost at sea” genre, even it doesn’t chart any new territory.

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