I’ve said before that real-life stories are often the source of some of cinema’s best works and while the new romantic drama “Adrift” may not be a work of cinematic perfection it’s a prime example of my point all the same. Based on an inspiring and somewhat disturbing real-life story of survival at sea against all odds “Adrift” is a nice break from the blockbuster fanfare that has dominated theaters in recent weekends, but is it good enough to live up to other survival classics like “Cast Away” or does it squander it’s opportunity to embrace female empowerment and tug at the heart strings? Let’s dive into this seafaring adventure. This is my review of “Adrift”
WHAT’S IT ABOUT
“Adrift” is set in 1983 and is based on the real-life story of Tami Oldham (Shailene Woodley) and Richard Sharp (Sam Claflin) who meet in Tahiti and eventually fall in love. Save for two other side characters the narrative focuses squarely on these two as they bond and share their life stories before being offered the opportunity to sail a couple’s prized yacht across the Pacific to California. While on their voyage they find themselves in the path of Hurricane Raymond which capsizes their boat and leaves Oldham the only person left on the damaged vessel. As she struggles to survive she locates an injured Sharp and puts all of her maritime knowledge to the test as she sets a course for Hawaii, 1,500 miles away, in hopes of being rescued. The couple spends 41 days at sea with Oldham having to compromise in her life choices, including her vegetarianism, and deal with her own injuries, Sharp’s injuries, water shortages and hallucinations in her struggle to survive and make it back to land. The story is told in pieces cutting between the love story before the storm and the pair’s survival in the aftermath.
“Adrift” had a lot going for it. It was based on a real-life story and mainstream audiences seems to love to grab on to these tales of human survival. However, it takes a gripping performance to really sell it and this film has just that in it’s lead role. Shailene Woodley is charged with carrying pretty much this entire movie as the strong and very capable Tami Oldham. She’s a world traveler who finds unexpected love in Tahiti and goes on a seafaring adventure with her newfound love only to find herself put in the position of having to survive. I’ve always appreciated Woodley despite her critics and this role is a perfect example of why. Woodley is mesmerizing and dedicates herself fully to capturing the pain, both physically and mentally, felt by her subject while also keeping an odd but believable sense of calm. She’s able to be both terrified and brave at the same time, a difficult mix of emotions to pull off, and never makes Oldham feel like a victim in the film but also doesn’t deny her humanity considering the danger of her situation. She knows what she needs to do to survive and she even undergoes several of the stages of grief in her attempt to get to dry land which are slickly written into the script. It may not win her any awards, even if she deserves consideration, but “Adrift” shows the best of its star and proves that Woodley has grown into a capable and charming actress who can hold her own.
In an odd way “Adrift” actually looks beautiful, at least while we’re at sea. While past shipwreck films have tried to force a sense of wonder into the visuals, such as “Life of Pi” and the aforementioned “Cast Away”, “Adrift” keeps it simple with a controlled perspective that constantly reminds the viewer of the expansive sea surrounding our protagonists. It doesn’t necessarily beat you over the head with it, but director Baltasar Kormákur and cinematographer Robert Richardson did the most with the least amount of scenery to remind us at the right times the dire situation the pair are in while also mixing in sunset scenes and underwater camerawork that give a sense of peace and beauty to a truly terrifying predicament. To that end the filmmakers don’t force us to be afraid of the ocean around the couple for most of the film. They allow the situation to speak for itself almost as if they’re drawing attention to how big and beautiful this world is and we’re just little specs trying to live in it. They do overdue it a bit with the storm scenes, but I’ll get to that soon. For now I just want to compliment the subtlety incorporated into the bulk of the film’s at sea segments that allows viewers, and star Shailene Woodley, to interpret the emotion and the situation on their own rather than force feed the terror of the circumstances through unneeded conflict.
One of the biggest surprises for me with “Adrift” is the emotional resonance of the story. Yes, the narrative has some problems, which again I’ll get to soon, but the romantic story superimposed over the survival story adds a nice bit of depth to how things play out. At the beginning of the film I thought it was a bit odd to cut away from the adrift portion of “Adrift” to show us details of how the pair came to meet and fall in love before their voyage but as the film progressed I began to realize the point. These tender, happier moments are meant to contrast with the more terrifying and lonely segments of the movie and when it all comes around to its gut punching conclusion and a dare I say tear-jerking twist ending you won’t see coming unless you’re familiar with the real-life story this style of storytelling ends up making perfect sense. It takes a little patience to appreciate it but once you realize WHY the story is told in the way it is it’s incredibly satisfying and emotionally charged in all the right ways driving home the best of what makes survival tales like this so engaging, enthralling and mesmerizing.
WHAT DIDN’T WORK
I compare this film to “Cast Away” a lot but with good reason. Like “Cast Away” this film focuses squarely on one person’s attempt to survive, however I’d say “Cast Away” is superior to “Adrift” simply because it sported more likable and charming supporting characters and a B story that was easier to invest in. “Adrift” lacks both a great B story and any other notable performances outside of its star. Let’s start with Sam Claflin’s Richard Sharp who takes a back seat to Woodley’s Oldham for most of the movie both literally and figuratively. As much as I found myself invested in the love story between these two by default I felt the chemistry was a bit lacking even in the direst of circumstances on the boat. Claflin has his charm and he’s not really bad in this film he’s just not as captivating as his co-star. This makes it difficult to fully invest in the love story that plays out over what happens at sea with the saving grace being Woodley’s charm and charisma. Essentially, we only invest in how she feels while Claflin’s Sharp is relegated to the bland love interest role that ironically is usually reserved for women. This is a nice change of roles, but it doesn’t feel intended which makes Claflin’s relatively bland portrayal of the love-struck sailor all the more frustrating.
The nature of “Adrift’s” style of storytelling also gives the narrative shifting tones which, like I said before, works to an extent because it provides contrast between the terror at sea and the happiness on land. But the love story on land is pretty basic and incredibly corny and bland. Some scenes were clearly added to pad the run time or to try and forcefully develop a relationship that shouldn’t have needed that much development if it was as believable as it could have been. It’s a tale of two approaches really. When the film focuses on this pair adrift on the boat the cinematography and storytelling is controlled and smooth but once the focus shifts to them on Tahiti bonding with each other the narrative tries to force feed emotion and lean on heavy imagery and scenery to sell the romance. The filmmakers trusted the audience enough to fill in the blanks in the most terrifyingly real parts of the film but didn’t trust them enough to appreciate the love that develops between the leads. Maybe this is a product of the simply okay chemistry between the two or maybe that chemistry was affected by the storytelling. It’s hard to tell, but it’s a glaring flaw in the film that gives it two very distinct tones that may compliment each other most of the time but don’t always mesh quite as perfectly as they could have.
And speaking of shifting tones, despite it being an important part of the story that needed to be told I found the storm segment to be just generic at best. By the time we see these two love birds in the middle of the storm facing down the wave that topples their boat we’ve already seen much of the love story and the terror at sea, so the emotional punch is kind of diluted by then. The visual effects used for this scene were a bit distracting and the violence and extreme nature of this moment contrast with the simplicity of the aftermath. Now this was done on purpose, but it doesn’t make this scene feel any less over the top. However, I CAN forgive this because, like much of this movie, the whole is actually greater than the sum of its parts. With a little patience to see the bigger picture you realize why the filmmakers chose to create such a dangerous and violent scene as it plays into the biggest emotional punch of the film once we shift back to the lovebirds at sea a month after that exact moment took place. This is an odd criticism for me to make of this film because the storm scene actually works in the big picture, but in the moment it fells a bit overplayed as one of the few true examples of creative license used in the film as Oldham was not actually present to see the extreme nature of the storm that hit her boat as she was below deck.
“Adrift” is a gem in its own right and tackles the survival instinct and fear of isolation that viewers seem to be drawn too effectively like many of its predecessors. It’s heavily driven by it’s charming and dedicated lead actress Shailene Woodley and uses some neat storytelling methods to offer contrast between heaven and hell on earth as well as great cinematography while at sea to add to its emotional resonance. The love story leaves something to be desired and the changing in tones between the inter cut stories can be a bit of a turnoff, but if you can get past that to see the experience through as a whole rather than as different parts it all comes around to a great tale of real-life survival against the odds with a twist of fate that will punch you right in the gut and effective pacing that makes “Adrift” feel neither too long nor too short in the grand scheme of things. It’s a story I’m glad I experienced and one I honestly enjoyed more than I expected. These are the kinds of real-life adventures cinema was made to tell and, like I said at the very beginning, while “Adrift” isn’t perfect it’s a fine example of how these kinds of very real stories bring a lot of potential to the table to become great movies worth watching.