Whether the inspiration is biblical, personal, or financial, humanity has long sought to dominate all that surrounds us. As a result, we have a strange attraction/aversion to nature. We love its majestic vistas, its adorable creatures, its bountiful sources of food. But we also fear and hate its nastier beasties, its brutal weather, and its intense indifference to us. Thus, movies like this week’s ADRIFT are an undeniable attraction for filmmakers looking to understand people’s relationship to the wider world.

Of course, simply setting a story in the midst of a hurricane does not guarantee insight. It matters not how well you recreate the waves if you fail to capture people at their best and worst.

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The Idea Behind ADRIFT

For twelve days, Tropical Storm/Hurricane Raymond raged. At its peak, it stirred up winds that hit 145 miles an hour. By the time Raymond dissipated over the Hawaiian island of Molokai, the storm had traveled some 4,700 miles. The pleasure yacht Hazana counts amongst the damage wrought. In addition to battering our protagonists–Tami Oldham (Shailene Woodley) and Richard Sharp (Sam Claflin) — the boat has lost its sail, its lifeboat, and its engine. As ADRIFT opens the boat floats, wildly off course, with several cracks in its structure.

Richard, despite being the more experienced sailor by a considerable measure, initially appears lost at sea following the storm. Tami, however, refuses to stop looking for him. She eventually finds him on the upturned lifeboat, unconscious. While badly injured—broken ribs, a significant open fracture to his right tibia—he nonetheless survived the time afloat.

From there, Tami, the relative novice of longterm sail travel, must save them largely on her own. She has a significant number of reasons why she feels ill-suited to the job. Her math skills—needed to calculate location and speed—are poor. Her commitment to vegetarianism and refusal to hurt animals makes her wholly unprepared to fish as their food dwindles. Last, but not least, she can feel her panic rising and has no means to diminish it.

ADRIFT: The happy couple
Shailene Woodley and Sam Claflin keep each other upright in ADRIFT (Courtesy of STX Entertainment)

The Writing

The three-member writer team—Aaron Kandell, Justin Kandell, and David Branson Smith — deliver an oddly disaffected script. It calls for Woodley and Claflin to share unpleasant facts of their life like Sharp’s mom’s suicide and Oldham’s largely absent father. The script’s structure, however, leads them to speak with all the emotion of one describing dropped toast. Scratch that. The toast would at least elicit a groan of frustration.

A large culprit for the problem is how the script chooses to engage the subject matter. By starting immediately after the storm and cutting back and forth between the couple’s present and past—eventually catching up to the storm—we never get a feel for their burgeoning connection. Every moment they start to dig deep, back we go to them making out in exotic locales. Every moment they start to move from crush to couple, we flash forward to them struggling to survive. No moment gets time to marinate.

It resembles the effect of an older romantic film. They ask viewers to buy into their love as part of the genre without needing to demonstrate its development.

The structure also robs the storm of its intensity. Since we know the immediate aftermath, there is no tension when it arrives. Unless you just really want to see how the F/X department handles the wave, the moment becomes inessential. (Sidenote: the F/X department does quite well with the wave.)

In the end, there turns out to be a reason for the tortured structure. However, it hardly seems worth it for the fairly underwhelming payoff.

Related: don’t read about Oldham and Sharp’s experience before seeing the movie.

ADRIFT: Middle Distance
Woodley slips towards despair in ADRIFT (Courtesy of STX Entertainment)

Casting the Leads of ADRIFT

While Claflin is technically the second lead—and an affable enough one at that—this is Woodley’s show. As Sharp’s condition worsens and neither land nor help arrive, Woodley increasingly engages in a one-woman show.

She is equal to the demand. She has a naturalism to her acting that is engaging even in a story like this where the water is threatening to literally and figuratively swallow her up. Woodley inhabits the feelings that seize Tami fully on-screen. The panic. The hope. And, most importantly, the ability to pretend to have the latter but not the former for the sake of her critically injured boyfriend.

Woodley also uses her physicality to great effect. I can recall reading an article about another actor who had to portray fit and heavy in the same movie, largely without dropping weight or adding muscle. He did so quite well. Woodley pulls a similar feat here, portraying the wasting effect of being at sea with little potable water or food.

It is especially impressive considering how the movie makes sure you see how her body looks and works early on. The perspective is not a male gaze-y one but establishes she spends her days physically working, swimming, and surfing. It is a body of activity by someone who isn’t doing it for vanity purposes. Later, she meditates nude on the bow of the ship, an exercise in a desperate attempt to settle herself. You see her from behind, her body bruised, her spine very visible. She has managed to sit in a way that tells a deeper story than bruise makeup—and later the makeup to render her face gaunt—does on its own.

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ADRIFT should feel like a massive film. The ocean is a large and powerful thing. The sky is infinite and brings a terrifying storm to batter this defenseless boat. This is a story on a huge scale.

So why does it feel so small?

Save a single overhead shot and the storm itself, the camera rarely bothers to provide viewers with a sense of place. The boat could easily be in a particularly large lake for all we see most of the time.

One may wish to mount an argument that the intent is to foster a sense of claustrophobia. Tami and Richard, trapped on the boat, exist in a tiny world. I would respond that giving a sign of the scale of the world around them would serve to emphasize how small their space is.

I would also counter that ADRIFT never actually feels claustrophobic. Even with all the action largely confined to about 30 square feet, the movie fails to put us in a place of ever-shrinking walls.

In fact, discounting the storm—which, as discussed above, is largely robbed of power by story structure—nothing feels particularly threatening. Another storm, we are told a cut later, became a squall. Their food supply grows thin and yet never seems to fully end. The most insidious threat seems to be Richard’s broken and possibly infected leg and the film undercuts that entirely before long.

To be clear, on a micro-level, director Baltasar Kormákur does fine. He seems to have directed the actors well. His angles never get boring. The shot selection is not generic but not ridiculous either. But in terms of making the viewer feel something about the situation—anything—Kormákur does not seem equal to the task.

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Striking the Set

There exists tremendous dramatic power in this story. One can easily imagine a brutal story of survival. Or, perhaps, an incredible weather spectacle. Instead, it satisfies neither. Despite good effects work, the hurricane hardly makes the pulse quicken. We’ve spent about 85% of the movie knowing the aftermath, after all. While indications are the story was meant to feel tight and restricted, it ended up just feeling small.

The romance flashback scenes, largely undiscussed above, feel similarly unpersuasive. Both actors look great, but the movie thinks that that is enough to involve us in the progress of their love. “Accept they love one another,” the screenplay seems to argue, “we promise they do.” Instead of, you know, capturing that love for us on film.

This is made all the more frustrating because the two have a kind of easy charisma with one another. It does not scorch, but you can see how they could fall into each other’s orbit. You just never get to know how it goes from there.

Finally, Woodley is excellent. Alas, her performance comes in service of a movie with little adrenaline or passion in its veins.

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