Survival narratives sink or swim based on their suspense and character development. “Cast Away” mostly succeeds because we watch Tom Hanks’ cohesive, fluid transformation from fat FedEx exec (say that five times fast) into brittle, mother nature man. “127 Hours” is a tad more experimental, having a mostly linear narrative with flashbacks between Aron Ralston’s past and cartilage-cutting present. “Adrift,” though, gets wrecked in its own narrative, failing to balance two tonally different story lines into something coherent and meaningful.
It’s a shame, considering that there’s more than ripe enough material to turn “Adrift” into meaningful, seafaring cinematic art. In 1983, while on a San Diego-bound sea voyage from Tahiti, Tami Oldham (Shailene Woodley) and her fiance Richard Sharp (Sam Claflin) sailed directly into a colossal hurricane, leaving their vessel wrecked and Tami facing seemingly insurmountable odds of survival.
But “Adrift” plunges us into this harrowing story in a haphazard manner. We’re terrified by moments of Tami trudging through waist-high waters in her weakening boat, and relieved during the loverly scenes of her and Sam on mainland. But its such a strange tonal shift early on in the film, between, happier moments of the past and frightening situations of the present, that “Adrift” never is able to generate a palpable sense of emotion, regardless of what that emotion may be.
Woodley and Claflin emanate a natural chemistry, with the uber green, real-life Vegan Woodley mastering both Oldham’s easygoing charm and heightened sense of survival. Director Baltasar Kormakur delivers stunning aquatic sequences, making us as awe-inspired by the great blue ocean as we are fearful of it. But the film fails to leap beyond its narrative and emotional hurdles, a true life story that’s best fit for print.