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Movie Review: Questionable Choices Set a Survival-at-Sea Tale 'Adrift'


Shailene Woodley stars in this survival saga that's based on true-but-screwed-with events. Adrift was adapted from the 2002 book Red Sky in Mourning: The True Story of a Woman's Courage and Survival at Sea by Tami Oldham Ashcraft. Fun fact: Interviewed by the Chicago Tribune shortly after its publication, Ashcraft made a striking comment about, of all things, the movie adaptation of Sebastian Junger's book The Perfect Storm. "There wasn't enough spray," she declared with regard to its depiction of a vessel contending with powerful winds, "and the wall of water was a little hokey."

Coincidentally, this adaptation of her account from director Baltasar Kormákur (Everest) is hokey, too. Hopelessly so. And guess what? At the height of the storm that sucks the pleasure out of Ashcraft's cruise, what do we spy towering high over her craft? Yup, an almost identical CGI wall of water.

The ho-hum computer animation, however, is the least of this picture's problems. The Lifetime-level script by Aaron and Jordan Kandell and David Branson Smith should have been tossed overboard long before cameras rolled. The romantic backstory is terminally saccharine, and the flashback-flash-forward scrambling with the source material is likelier to induce viewer seasickness than the giant waves rocking the boat.

Woodley plays Tami as a California girl whose sole goal in life appears to be getting and staying as far from home as possible. We meet her in Tahiti, where she surfs and does odd jobs at a marina in patented free-spirit fashion. Until Sam Claflin drops anchor as Richard Sharp, an English fellow traveler and hunk who built his own boat. Faster than you can say Message in a Bottle, the two are head-over-halyards in love and planning a voyage around the world.

But a chance encounter sets their lives on a different course. A British couple makes Richard an offer he can't refuse: to sail their yacht 4,000 miles back to San Diego. The Hazana was a floating palace equipped with every conceivable navigation, emergency-positioning and communication device. And yet, the movie suggests, the veteran mariners steered straight into 1983's Hurricane Raymond, somehow not catching wind of the Category 4 storm until they were inside it.

Routine typhoon effects ensue. When she comes to, Tami discovers her man overboard, rescues him, tends to his debilitating wounds and feeds him globs of Skippy with her fingers while giggling, "How much do you love me right now?" The supply of peanut butter — and giggles — dwindles steadily over 41 days as Tami captains the crippled craft toward what she hopes is Hawaii.

As deep-sea dramas go, Adrift ranks with the not-so-great. Beside it, Jaws: The Revenge looks like Titanic. The filmmakers clearly were shooting for a cross between All Is Lost and the movie version of Wild, Cheryl Strayed's celebration of female self-dependence, but missed the mark by a nautical mile.

Chief among the shortcomings: cloyingly cute dialogue, a lack of chemistry between the leads and a narrative structure all but designed to sap the story of suspense. More egregious, though, is Kormákur's unethical deployment of the surprise twist.

Let's remember, this is the story of a real-life tragedy. Nobody has the right to turn it into the entertainment equivalent of a jack-in-the-box for a quick buck. There's simply no possible justification for the liberties taken — which doesn't mean the director hasn't tried to justify them.

I'm being deliberately detail-free to avoid spoilers. Suffice it to say, the filmmaker sinks to shameful depths. Someone should revoke his artistic license.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Adrift"