The most interesting thing about “Adrift” is that it is based on a true story.
The film begins in media res. We see Tami (Shailene Woodley) unconscious in a waterlogged boat, and as she slowly takes stock of her surroundings, the movie jumps back to reveal what happened over the previous months, right up to the moment the boat nearly capsizes.
Though set in the early 1980s, the film could just as well describe the life story of someone today. Tami is a 23-year-old American girl in Tahiti. The island is just her most recent stop on a wanderlust-fueled adventure that was originally supposed to last six months, but turned into five years. In Tahiti, she meets Richard (Sam Claflin). The two fall in love and set out to sail the world, just the two of them. When they find themselves in the middle of a hurricane, what began as an adventure soon becomes a desperate attempt to survive.
While “Adrift” is a good movie and Woodley’s performance is undoubtedly its best part, the film feels remarkably predictable. This is not inherently a shortcoming, but it’s widely known by now that Hollywood doesn’t tend to greenlight survival stories that don’t involve at least some form of survival.
“Adrift” is largely what one would expect. It’s a thriller that relies on the way survival stories inherently hook one’s attention. The question of who, if anyone, will survive will keep most watching until the end, regardless of the quality of the story.
The film does not ultimately elevate itself beyond the countless other similar movies that have come before. The romance between Richard and Tami, though touching, is well-known — the attractive white woman falls for the attractive white man. Woodley’s role is firmly one of a strong, capable female character, but she is also yet one more addition to the conventionally attractive, white, brunette female warrior.
Though “Adrift” does not ever stray too far from the familiar setup of the survival thriller, it manages to find poignancy within this well-known structure.
The nonlinear telling of the story serves multiple purposes, all of which slowly become clear over the course of the film. But the most lasting impact of this structure is the way it drives home the love between Tami and Richard. We meet Tami when she has already fallen in love with Richard, a love strong enough for both to agree to sail around the world together. But it is some time before we see the details of this love, how it began, how it grew and what exactly it means for the pair.
Though Tami and Richard are adrift together, Richard is largely incapacitated. The film is ultimately a chronicle of one woman’s efforts to survive — in a departure from most romance flicks and disaster movies, the focus is not on the strength the woman draws from the man (or even vice versa), nor about how they come to rely upon each other. It is Tami learning that their survival wholly relies upon her.
And unlike many disaster movies, the movie feels like a love letter to nature. The ocean is both the couple’s greatest danger and their only chance of survival, as they’re forced to chart the best course and augment what little food survived the storm. Combined with gorgeous wide shots of the boat adrift at sea, the film seems to find nature beautiful because of its immense capacity for terror.
Much of the movie was shot on location — that is, out at sea. Director Baltasar Kormákur, who also directed the 2015 thriller “Everest,” was intent on filming as much of the movie on open water. As a result, the risks and tension feel more real — the scenes are shot in the same unpredictable environment that so quickly turned life-threatening for both Tami and Richard.
“Adrift” is thrilling and attention-grabbing. No matter how expected and foreseen its ending is, the movie still leaves a significant emotional impact on its audience. After all, it is partly due to romance flicks’ widespread appeal that so many similar stories already exist — but hey, this one’s on a boat.
“Adrift” is now playing at Shattuck Cinemas.