There’s something uniquely harrowing about solitary confinement at sea. With supplies limited and solid land a faraway dream — plus, forget about social-connective Insta-stories — you’re forced to rely on your wits and your withering thoughts. Adrift is the latest entry in a subgenre that already includes Life of Pi, Unbroken, All is Lost, In the Heart of the Sea, the Perfect Storm and Open Water. While it doesn’t exactly make a big splash, this entry appeals as a pure, noble and thrilling true-life adventure.
And, for the first time, a female does the literal heavy lifting. Tami (Shailene Woodley) wakes up in peril because her boat has been thrashed from a catastrophic hurricane. She looks out to the horizon in desperation and all she can see is the glistening Pacific Ocean. Her version of screaming for help is repeatedly calling out the name of her fiance, Robert (Sam Claiflin). They were sailing together from Tahiti to her San Diego hometown. Now he’s vanished. He’s the experienced sailor about a decade her senior; she’s the 23-year-old sunny, care-free California girl. She lacks navigation tools, and the radio is broken. The year is 1983. All is indeed lost. Or is it?
Director Baltasar Kormakur (Everest) toggles his entire narrative between Robert and Tami’s Tahiti courtship and her resourcefulness in open water. She tells him about her backpacking adventures. . . cut to Tami finding Robert badly injured and attempting to nurse him back to health. She writes her mom a letter about her impending trip home . . . cut to Tami making the risky decision to cut across the ocean and find land in Hawaii.
In a linear model, the two wouldn’t have even left the dock until the one-hour mark. This storytelling device also allows us to witness how this what-me-worry wild child is forced to grow up under extreme circumstances. But each time he flashes back, the tension dissipates. It’s crucial to be in the moment with our heroine throughout her ordeal. She must move forward or die. Thinking to the past cheapens the experience a bit.
It’s a no-brainer as to why Woodley would be drawn to Adrift. For the first time, the actress gets to be the untethered free-spirit of Jane in Big Little Lies and show off the physical prowess of Tris in the Divergent series. At just 26 years-old, she pushes herself like she’s never done before. Just seven years ago, The Descendants director Alexander Payne bragged that she taught herself to cry underwater. Now she’s jumping in head first to spear fish. She bakes in the sun, cares for her hovering-near-death love and navigates choppy waters. Don’t be so quick to dismiss her physical (and emotional) exertion as CGI magic either — Kormakur previously directed the excellent Everest and made Jake Gyllenhaal, Josh Brolin and the rest of the cast trek up a snow-capped mountain in Nepal. I’m tempted to say that she overdoes it with the shrieking fish-out-of-water behavior . . . then again, her character isn’t supposed to be a cool-headed customer. In a fight-or-flight scenario, how would you react?
Adrift grips with its sun-kissed South Pacific beauty and its dangling hope. I wasn’t aware of the story behind the story (don’t Google!) and unsure if Woodley and/or Claiflin would survive to see the end credit. After all, the main cast perished in both The Perfect Storm and Open Water. This isn’t scrappy Sandra Bullock mourning her daughter and trying to get back to Earth solo in the fictional Gravity. A happy end in which the loving couple save themselves and get married is far from a sure thing. Perhaps that’s why the director throws a highly questionable monkey wrench into the third act.
I’m not sure if moviegoers that crave summer movie escapism are clamoring for a visual 35-year-old tale about a young woman and the sea. If so, they’re in store for a pretty fantastic voyage.
Adrift opens in theaters on Friday, June 1