Imagine Robert Redford’s man-against-the-sea film “All Is Lost” (2013) rewritten by Nicholas Sparks, and you’ll have some idea of what “Adrift” is like. Though Baltasar Kormákur’s movie, starring Shailene Woodley and Sam Claflin as a young couple who run into a terrible storm while attempting to sail from Tahiti to California on a posh yacht, is based on a true story, lines of dialogue like “I’ve sailed halfway around the world to find you” reek of characteristic Sparksian slosh.
The script, adapted by Aaron Kandell, Jordan Kandell and David Branson Smith from the 2002 memoir “Red Sky in Mourning: A True Story of Love, Loss and Survival at Sea” by Tami Oldham Ashcraft and Susea McGearhart, tells of an ill-fated voyage young Oldham (played by Woodley) made with Richard Sharp (Claflin) in 1983.
In this telling, the two met in Tahiti and quickly developed a loving relationship that was to lead to her joining him on the Mayaluga, a sailboat he’d built himself, for a round-the-world trip. But an offer of $10,000 Richard received from a British couple (Jeffrey Thomas and Elizabeth Hawthorne) to sail their yacht Hazana to Tami’s hometown of San Diego proved irresistible, and off they went. Initially the trip was a pleasurable one, but then they got caught up in Hurricane Raymond. Tami was knocked unconscious below deck, and when she awoke Richard was gone, thrown overboard.
The film takes substantial liberties in recounting what followed, not least in showing Tami apparently rescuing Richard, whom she spies clinging to debris, and nursing the injured man for weeks during the effort to sail the damaged craft to safety in Hawaii. She did eventually reach that goal, being picked up off the Hawaiian coast by a fishing boat.
In certain respects the film is extremely predictable: it closes, of course, with photos showing the real Oldham and Sharp before the closing credits roll, a standard device. In others, however, it is not, rejecting a straightforward chronological narrative in favor of one that juxtaposes scenes of the couple’s whirlwind romance in Tahiti with sequences portraying the trans-Pacific voyage that ends in disaster.
Both elements of the picture have virtues. The locations in the romantic scenes (shot in Fiji) are gorgeous, and cinematographer Robert Richardson’s widescreen images take full advantage of them. The camerawork in the open-sea sequences is equally impressive, and the storm effects are for the most part quite convincing.
Nevertheless there’s an air of familiarity about the film that, combined with the cloying quality brought to the central relationship, comes very close to sabotaging the entire enterprise. At a time when the presentation of strong heroines is becoming more and more desirable on screen, Woodley’s Oldham certainly fills the bill; she might be giddy over Richard, but she’s more fearless than he is when it comes to jumping from a Tahitian cliff into a river below, and in the aftermath of the storm she steels herself to become navigator and pilot although the odds seem insurmountable. The actress does a generally fine job of delineating the character’s ups and downs, although it must be admitted that one might occasionally be irritated by the undercurrent of shrillness she brings to the role.
As for Claflin, he’s used mainly as a smiling hunk with a cute accent who serves, as the story progresses, as the reverse of a damsel-in-distress. He manages the job amiably enough, but it’s a fairly thankless task. The rest of the cast is purely utilitarian, though there are some nice cameos by islanders, like one by Siale Tunoka as a customs agent.
One does have to wonder, though, whether there is any longer a taste among audiences for disaster-at-sea movies like this one, even if they have inspiringly upbeat endings. Think not only of “All Is Lost,” but of Ron Howard’s “In the Heart of the Sea” (2015) or Craig Gillespie’s “The Finest Hours” (2016)—all pretty good flicks that were box-office disappointments.
Of course, none of those films had a prominent romantic angle, and perhaps, as with “Titanic,” that element will mean smoother sailing for “Adrift.” On the other hand, the mawkishness with which the romance is handled undermines the urgency of the larger survival narrative, as was the case with last year’s “The Mountain Between Us”—another tale of endurance under extreme pressure that audiences avoided. “Adrift” isn’t awful, but its Sparksian tendencies ultimately sink it.