There’s a question Adrift seems to be inadvertently asking: what if Peter Weir made a YA romance/survival drama? Only since Weir hasn't helmed a proper picture in almost a decade – since his qualitatively so-so Siberian gulag escape tale, The Way Back ('10) – Icelandic director Baltasar Kormákur has opted to try and pull off a pretty solid impersonation of the Australian auteur. This should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with Kormákur's filmography, as he previously captured one man trying to survive at sea with his capsized fishing boat character drama, The Deep ('12), along with Everest ('15), the filmmaker’s true-to-life recreation of a team of New Zealand explorers who experienced just a touch of trouble climbing up the titular mountain.
However, where Weir was infatuated with the ethereal elements of man existing alongside nature, Kormákur is all about the nitty-gritty process of weathering a storm. Adrift opens in media res, as Tami Oldham (a sun baked Shailene Woodley) stumbles about the flooded cabin of the Hazana – a forty-four-foot yacht she and her newfound love Richard Sharp (Sam Claflin) agreed to sail from Tahiti to San Diego, in exchange for $10,000 and two first class plane tickets back to the Pacific. Yet for Tami and Richard, it's the adventure that matters, not the money; they're in love and in the midst of navigating around the world with one another, jumping from island to island as they've both finally discovered the one they want to see the rest of the globe with.
Unfortunately, adventure comes calling for them in the form of a Category 4 hurricane, which submerges the ship and tosses Richard out to sea like a rag doll. Through a series of fractured flashbacks – all strung together via some rather remarkable editing from John Gilbert (The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring ['01]) – we get a sense of this relationship's beginning and quick development, allowing us to dread the fateful night this storm besieged the Hazana. It's a rather ingenious structure; building a slow sense of dread by making us fall in love with Tami and Richard, just as they're learning to absolutely adore one another. A pair of free spirits, we're just as set to sail for the horizon along with them as they push off from port in September of '83, unknowingly headed for a rather grim destiny.
Mind you, none of this would work if not for Woodley and Claflin, who share an incredible chemistry, and make you believe in these two becoming the loves of each others' lives. Woodley has a natural grace and beauty; the girl next door who decided her California hometown was rather boring and headed for the border, knowing in her heart she'd probably never return. On the other hand, Claflin harbors a deep melancholy as the older gentleman who sails into Fiji, not looking for the girl of his dreams, but certainly unwilling to let her go once he finds her. Instead of forced musical cues and goofy meet cutes, there's a naturalism to how their bond develops, as we bear witness to the little in-jokes and moments that only arise when you're ready to open up to another person completely, naked and alone at sea with only your secrets to share.
Yet where Adrift truly shines is in its illustration of the couple's survival. Step by step, she brings the boat back to a semi-working condition, charts a course using little more than the sun, the time of day, and a few maps, and even dives beneath the boat to remove a sheet stuck in the rudder. Tami rations off any food and water she can find, knowing that she and Richard will probably be floating at the speed of only a few knots for almost a month. Capturing it all is Quentin Tarantino and Oliver Stone's regular cinematographer Robert Richardson (Inglourious Basterds ['09]), who utilizes his 2.39 widescreen frame to never let us forget the vastness of the ocean that's swallowed these two lovers up in its mighty expanse. Often, it's the visual splendor of Adrift that makes us constantly uneasy as we gaze in awe at the wonders of nautical creation, simultaneously hoping we're never caught in a similar beautiful predicament.
Like Weir, Kormákur seems fascinated by how human beings take in and relate to nature. It's no coincidence that Tami is a vegetarian, yet might have to eventually rely on the sea for protein by her thirty-third day in its grasp. Similarly, Richard has trouble describing the feeling he gets when sailing alone for months at a time – wet, hungry, sunburned, delirious, and sometimes hallucinating – driven to head back out and explore territory barely charted by man. While Adrift never ventures into the spiritual or existential territory of The Mosquito Coast ('86) or Fearless ('93), these very real characters still seem like they could've easily appeared in any of those movies. They're survivors, forgoing a typically civilized life to see just what the world has beyond the boundaries of man's establishments. Though Kormákur never quite reaches the heights of those masterworks, Adrift is still a solid reminder of our place on the planet, and how love can survive even the most brutal of calamities.
Adrift is currently in theaters.