Shailene Woodley sails into trouble in seafaring survival tale
Starring Shailene Woodley & Sam Claflin
Directed by Baltasar Kormákur
Why would anyone launch a two-person sailboat, head into the ocean and embark on a journey of more than 6,000 miles?
I wouldn’t, and perhaps you wouldn’t, but the young couple in this movie do exactly that, and their voyage leads them smack into the maw of a monstrous hurricane.
Maybe you remember the true story on which Adrift is based. It’s a pretty incredible survival tale, from 1983, and Icelandic director Baltasar Kormákur brings it to dramatic life with a bracing blast of salty sea spray and a deep-dive, committed performance from his female star, who was also one of the film’s producers.
Shailene Woodley plays Tami Oldham, a 24-year-old California dreamer blown by the winds of wanderlust to Tahiti, where she meets the dashing English sailor Richard Sharp (Sam Claflin). He’s slightly older, he’s built his own boat from scrap, and he wants to sail around the world.
Tami is charmed by Richard, and though she’s been on lots of vessels, she admits she’s no sailor. What’s it like, she asks him, to be out there, on the ocean, all alone? “It’s intense,” he tells her. “After a few days, I feel reborn.” But Richard also shoots straight: It’s no paradise. “You’re either sunburned, sleep-deprived or seasick.” And there’s always hallucinations, dehydration and other potential hazards.
But soon enough, Tami and Richard have fallen in love in the tropical island paradise, and they’re making plans to sail away—taking a British couple’s luxury vessel on a one-way trip from the South Pacific to San Diego, Tami’s hometown.
They expect a month of romantic sea travel. But they certainly don’t expect a tropical storm to turn into Hurricane Raymond, which nearly destroys their craft and pushes them irrevocably off-course, with a broken mainmast, busted engine and other debilitating damages.
Rather than a “linear” approach, director Kormákur lays out the story by toggling back and forth after the hurricane and before it happened. The movie opens, for instance, with a bravo sequence (the cinematographer is three-time Oscar-winner Robert Richardson) that begins underneath the water, then inside the hull of the capsized boat, with the camera following Tami in what must be the aftermath of an enormous, devastating wave. She sloshes and splashes in waist-deep muck and debris, looking for Richard, before finally emerging topside—at which point the camera pulls away high into the air, revealing her, and the boat, all alone in the vast, empty ocean.
Then the title of the movie comes up, we meet our characters and begin learning about them. Knowing and seeing “in advance” what is going to happen, and checking in at various times later, adds depth to more tranquil scenes as Tami and Richard discuss their dreams, their future and the decisions and choices they’re making.
Woodley, who found fame in The Spectacular Now, the Divergent franchise and now HBO’s Big Little Lies, anchors the movie with resourcefulness and resolve, especially as her character is baked to a crisp and worn down by 41 days of exposure to the elements.
Through Tami’s plight, the movie poses the practical question: What would you do, if you suddenly found yourself in such dire straits? Could you catch and gut a fish? Figure out how to use a sextant? Repair a hole in a leaky boat? Stitch up a gash on your forehead with a fishhook and line? Keep from going crazy?
Claflin, who starred in The Hunger Games and its sequels, has a bit less to do. Richard is seriously injured in the storm, and he spends the rest of the film on the sidelines, which spurs the much-less-experienced Tami into full stay-alive mode.
Director Kormákur seems to like it when things go horribly wrong. His 2015 disaster flick Everest depicted climbers of the world’s tallest mountain peak when engulfed by a massive blizzard. In the end, not everyone makes it off the mountain alive.
Who makes it to the end of Adrift is a bit more certain, especially if you happen to know the true events that inspired the film. But if you don’t (there’s a pretty big surprise close to the end), I suggest you just go see the movie and ride out the waves. This sea-saga blend of love story, fem-strong survival tale and ocean-yarn adventure makes a decent young-adult, date-night flick.
It still doesn’t, however, make me want to get on a sailboat.
In theaters June 1, 2018