WASHINGTON — Before Shailene Woodley became a household name in “The Fault in Our Stars” (2012), “Divergent” (2014) and “Big Little Lies” (2017), she memorably starred in “The Descendants” (2011), diving into a swimming pool and letting out an underwater scream.
This weekend, she’s back underwater in the new romantic adventure “Adrift,” a film that doesn’t add much new to the lost-at-sea subgenre, but one that might pass the 90 minutes just fine if you’re looking to watch Nicholas Sparks meets Blake Lively’s “The Shallows” (2016).
Based on a true story from 1983, dock worker Tami Oldham (Shailene Woodley) falls for an avid sailor Richard Sharp (Sam Claflin) while making ends meet in Tahiti. When an older couple asks them to sail their boat to San Diego for $10,000 and a pair of return flight tickets, the young lovebirds set sail across the Pacific, running smack dab into a hurricane. Stranded without navigation or communication devices, they must somehow find their way to Hawaii.
Just like his paraplegic role across Emilia Clarke in “Me Before You” (2016), the scruffy-chinned Sam Claflin spends much of “Adrift” similarly incapacitated, providing calm reassurance to Woodley as she does the heavy lifting. During romantic flashbacks, Woodley giggles with a contagious laugh that feels authentic of young love. And yet her best moments come during the shipwrecked action, gritting her teeth and digging down deep with survival instincts.
However, unlike Robert Redford’s silent turn in J.C. Chandor’s “All is Lost” (2013), Woodley talks to herself a bit too much as she traverses the stranded vessel. She talks to the sail. She talks to the binoculars. She talks to the water pump. It stands to reason that folks in such a lonely situation might talk to themselves to keep their sanity — just like Tom Hanks in “Cast Away” (2000) — but “Adrift” feels more like obvious exposition for the audience’s benefit.
Even so, screenwriters Aaron and Jordan Kandell (“Moana”) and David Branson Smith (“Ingrid Goes West”) deserve credit for taking structural chances with the narrative. Throughout the journey, the writers routinely cut back and forth between the past and present, intercutting the characters’ present-day survival skills with romantic flashbacks of their cute love story.
Director Baltasar Kormákur (“Everest”) smartly opens the film with an underwater shot just after the shipwreck, introducing an unconscious Woodley as she finally comes to and climbs back up to the ship deck in an impressive single take. During the ensuing flashbacks, Kormákur teases the tragedy with foreboding aquatic images. As the lovers cliff dive and playfully hold their breath underwater, the camera hovers half-submerged at the surface.
When he finally circles back to the shipwreck at the climax, Kormákur presents a giant wave to rival “The Perfect Storm” (2000), followed by a spinning camera that allows us to identify with the characters being tossed and turned. It’s an undeniably effective bit of filmmaking.
And yet, the rather uneventful script drags down the experience. The longer we’re at sea, we the audience begin to drift, craving the danger of “Open Water” (2003) or the imagination of “Life of Pi” (2012). By the time we reach the script’s big surprise, we’re already partly zoned out, perhaps because we’re sea sick, perhaps because we’ve already seen “Tully” do it better.
In the end, “Adrift” isn’t a bad way to drift for 90 minutes. Woodley and Claflin are more than magnetic enough to win us over with their charm. Just don’t expect anything that you haven’t seen before. The result is no shipwreck; it does just enough to keep its head above water.
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