Review: 'Adrift', Shailene Woodley Sails Against The Pull Of Familiar Survival Thrillers

I learned long ago that Icelandic filmmaker Baltasar Kormakur's survival thrillers would be designed to prey upon my two greatest fears: drowning in deep water, and towering heights. Just keep me here on firm, level ground, thank you. The director behind The Deep and Everest is fit to fray my nerves again with Adrift, a man vs. nature romance that finds Shailene Woodley and Sam Claflin battling against the elements to keep their love alive on the high seas.

Sounds fairly traditional, right? Didn't we just see this "love conquers all" narrative in the cheesy The Mountain Between Us? Thankfully, this isn't that movie. Adrift, which is based on the true story of Tami Oldham (Woodley) and Richard Sharp (Claflin), employs a non-linear narrative structure to tremendous effect in capturing the adventurous spirit that forges their relationship. It also helps make this a movie about more than just surviving through to the end, which is what often makes these stories so bland in the first place.

Kormakur doesn't waste any time, opening just as Tami is regaining consciousness on a sinking yacht in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Her first thought isn't of herself, but to yell out Richard's name and frantically begin searching for him. Finding nothing, she goes topside and gets a full accounting of her dire situation. The boat is a shambles, there's no land for possibly thousands of miles, and Richard is nowhere in sight.

The urge to think we've stumbled into Shailene Woodley's version of All is Lost begins to creep in, but then Kormakur switches things up on a dime. From the horror of the present we're swept months earlier to a much happier time when the free-spirited, nomadic Tami first meets yachtsman Richard in Tahiti. They hit it off because of their mutual wanderlust, her vitality mixing well with his sensitivity, and they agree to sail the world together. It's all exotic beaches, rainbows, and overtures of love for a time, until a massive storm hits them while sailing a friend's boat to San Diego.

What could have been a monotonous journey is rescued by frequent leaps through time, with Kormakur's judicious use of flashback a welcome escape from the slow monotony of Tami's predicament. But those moments are necessary, too, and Woodley perfectly captures the desperation Tami feels as her situation worsens. Eventually her concerns grow beyond just caring for herself, and that adds a whole new level of anxiety. It only deepens as the food rations grow low and the water dries up. 

Those who have already read the true story of Tami and Richard's journey may be confused by their portrayal here as it differs from public knowledge, but there is method to the apparent madness and it becomes clear much later on. Both Woodley and Claflin get plenty of moments to shine here, but in truth this is Woodley's movie. Tami's fierce, flawed, and determined, but also a woman who had an exciting life long before she met Richard, and Woodley embodies all of that life experience. Meanwhile, Claflin's best moments are when Richard is undeniably falling head over heels for Tami. He's less defined of a character than she is, which takes some of the luster off of them as a romantic pair.  There aren't any true conflicts between them that arise, and not much in the way of external threats other than...oh, starvation. It's not a movie where Tami is forced to fend off a school of sharks. The drama is more internal, and is made more engaging as she fights against her own fears and doubts to make it through another day. That said, there are lulls that can't even be fixed by Woodley, or by Robert Richardson's gorgeous cinematography which captures the beauty of the ocean and its terrible potential for destructive power.  It's naturally unsettling to go from the calming shores of Tahiti to the heart of a raging Hurricane Raymond, but it works in keeping us on our toes.

Kormakur could very easily have made your standard survival story and that might have been enough to coast on by. But due to a cleverly-plotted script and a captivating Shailene Woodley, Adrift sails against the tide and charts a better way forward.

Rating: 3 out of 5