Saturday, September 15, 2018

THE INFINITE HORIZON: a review of "Adrift"

"ADRIFT"
Based upon the memoir Red Sky In Mourning: A True Story Of Love, Loss and Survival At Sea by Tami Oldham Ashcraft and Susea McGearhart
Screenplay Written by Aaron Kandell & Jordan Kandell and David Branson Smith
Directed by Balthasar Kormakur
**1/2 (two and a half stars)
RATED PG 13

Ahh...the dreaded "surprise" plot twist.

Dear readers, there is something I feel the need to confess to you. Now, take it with a grain of salt and believe me, this is not something that I am remotely frothing at the mouth over but it is something that does need to be said. I am getting a bit tired of the so-called "surprise" plot twist.

My feelings do not reflect any sort of a hard and fast rule but it is something that feels the need to be addressed because it is something that runs the risk of becoming nothing more than a cheap trick, a lazy sort of storytelling that will allow screenwriters and directors to be let off of the hook should the story they are attempting to construct fails and they ultimately need an escape hatch rather than take the ample time to do some serious re-conceptualizing and reconstruction.

Granted, when those surprise twists work well--as evidenced of course in Writer/Director M. Night Shyamalan's ingenious work in "The Sixth Sense" (1999), "Unbreakable (2000) and "Split" (2017) and most recently, in the rapaciously brutal and literally final moments in Director Jean-Marc Vallee's HBO mini-series adaptation of author Gillian Flynn's Sharp Objects (2006)--you have a narrative that has been simultaneously upended, deepened and enhanced. When those sorts of twists are unsuccessful, we end up with films that house elements that are superfluous at best and sloppy at worst, therefore creating the impression that there was MORE when there was already enough, or there was MORE to justify the lack of what was already there.

Earlier this year, Director Jason Reitman and Writer Diablo Cody's fine "Tully" succumbed to a surprise plot twist, while making logical sense, was indeed nothing the film needed and therefore lessened the film's overall impact as far as I am concerned. And now, with Director Balthasar Kormakur's "Adrift," we are treated with the same conception that, while making logical sense, did nothing to advance the narrative, ultimately lessening the film's intended effect. NO SPOILERS from me, of course, but I can say that once their film's surprise twist occurred, my heart sank, as what had preceded this moment was undeniably compelling if not anything revolutionary.

"Adrift" stars Shailene Woodley as Tami Oldham, a young wanderer originally from San Diego who has taken up an indefinite port of residence in Tahiti when she meets a slightly older man named Richard Sharp (Sam Claflin) and the two soon begin a courtship which blossoms into a full romance. With their shared love of travel and sailing, the twosome agree to sail and deliver a yacht from Tahiti to San Diego with the promise of two first class tickets back to Tahiti as payment.

Soon, Tami and Richard find themselves trapped within the brutal storm of Hurricane Raymond and in the aftermath, Tami awakens after 27 hours adrift and somehow, has to rescue the missing Richard and navigate the damaged boat to Hawaii with only a meager amount of drinkable water, canned goods and supplies in order to survive.

In many ways, there is essentially nothing within Balthasar Kormakur's "Adrift" that you have not already seen in any survivalist thriller, especially one set upon the high seas including Director Steven Spielberg's"Jaws" (1975), Director Wolfgang Petersen's "The Perfect Storm" (2000), Director Chris Kentis' "Open Water" (2003) to most recently, Writer/Director J.C. Chandor's "All Is Lost" (2013) starring Robert Redford. Therefore, there is an over-familiarity to the proceedings that does indeed dull the overall sense of terror that is necessary for a film like this one to carry any significant weight. That being said, what does indeed keep this film afloat, so to speak are the performances and the non-linear narrative Kormakur applies to the story to keep things a tad off-kilter, as well as being emotionally effective.

Honestly, there was truly not one moment upon the former ABC Family channel's "The Secret Life Of The American Teenager" series (2008-2013) that would have ever suggested that program's leading figure Shailene Woodley would become an actress to watch. Now while she has not quite yet delivered that breakthrough performance, Woodley has unquestionably and consistently showcased herself as being a solid, and purely naturalistic actress, capable of conveying rich, emotional and psychological depth that has made her more than captivating to regard in films like Writer/Director Alexander Payne's "The Descendants" (2011), Director  James Ponsoldt's "The Spectacular Now" (2013), Director Josh Boone's "The Fault In Our Stars" (2014) as well as her work upon Jean-Marc Vallee's HBO series of "Big Little Lies" (2017).

With "Adrift," Woodley continues her streak with a performance that adds a vibrant, harrowing physicality alongside some dramatic work that is as times quite searing in its force, as her tale of survival is one as much of the spirit and mind as well as the body. In some ways, I could easily see  how some viewers may feel that the film could serve as a feminist drama, as I deeply appreciated how Kormakur and Woodley focused heavily upon the strength and ingenuity of Tami Oldham as she is never at any point the proverbial "damsel in distress" that needs to be saved by Richard.

On the contrary, Richard, for much of the film, is incapable of helping Tami whatsoever, leaving her to keep the ship repaired as best as able, to keep tabs upon food and drink rations, provide crucial  medical assistance and care, navigate, sail and all other tasks necessary to attempt complete survival, all the while battling increased malnourishment, extreme fatigue, crippling despair and even hallucinations. Shailene Woodley is equal to every moment that she has been given in this film and she nearly keeps the film above water single-handedly. 

At its most effective, "Adrift" does indeed work as a love story and I liked how Kormakur used the non-linear format to keep shifting time from the hurricane aftermath to the romance of Tami and Richard, ultimately weaving them together effortlessly as their survival is indeed based in the love they have found within each other. Woodley and Sam Claflin establish fine, and again, natural chemistry that makes the love story believable and grounded, thus giving the survival aspect of the story some real grit and anguish. 

But then, let us return to that "surprise"plot twist, shall we? I will say, that as this film is based upon the real life events and memoir of Tami Oldham Ashcraft, what occurs near the conclusion of the film does indeed make logical sense. My problem in entirely within the execution and presentation, which for me, was completely unnecessary as it felt as if Kormakur did not trust the inherent drama of the piece enough to just let it stand upon its own storytelling feet and he felt the need to "juice" the narrative.

This was highly unfortunate because I truly believe that the very same information could have been delivered differently to allow the film to have a stronger emotional and psychological power that would have undoubtedly set it apart from films similar to itself. What we have in the resulting film felt like a false revelation, a "shocking" moment uncomfortably shoe-horned into a film that never needed it, giving "Adrift" enough of a sheen of prefabrication in and otherwise honest yet  unremarkable film.

Look Bathasar Kormakr's "Adrift" is a good enough diversion. It is beautifully filmed, it possesses more then enough strong notions concerning the unforgiving power of our world's natural elements and with Shailene Woodley and Sam Claflin, the film is (ahem) anchored by two very good, effective performances. If all of those pieces had been honed just a tad sharper, would we have ever needed the "surprise" plot twist? I think not.

And for that matter, these days, the biggest "surprise" plot twist nowadays would be the film that never felt the need to forcefully insert one.       

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