One could be forgiven for seeing the advertisements for Adrift and thinking that it’s just another “young couple in peril” flick, in which two lovebirds use the strength of their bond to survive typically unsurvivable circumstances. All the pieces are there: disaster, romance, “based on the hit novel,” a soundtrack featuring a singer who purposefully mangles her vowels, Shailene Woodley. Yet this isn’t that movie. Adrift will undoubtedly be shrugged off by grown ups who feel more mature than a YA romance (I’d have certainly dismissed it had I not been tasked with reviewing it), and while it wouldn’t be wholly inaccurate to do so, I’d like to offer my assurance that Adrift shouldn’t be so easily dismissed.
In fact, I’m cheesing at the notion of the opposite: a group of teens sitting down to watch a pop-weepy only to be rocked by a harrowing true tale of a two sailors lost at sea.
The film begins at the moment Tami (Shailene Woodley) awakens aboard a recently wrecked sailboat. She’s disoriented and hurt, but she’s an able sailor, and she immediately gets to work bettering her situation. Soon after she gets the ship in order, she finds her fiancé, Richard (Sam Claflin) clinging to life atop a piece wreckage. They reunite and make a plan to find land before Richard succumbs to his injuries or, worse yet, they both die of starvation. From there we move back in time to Tami’s arrival in Tahiti some time prior. She’s a wanderer at heart — one of those “say yes to everything” types — and soon after she touches down at her latest destination, she and Richard meet and fall in love. We bounce back and forth between the two narratives until love meets the storm and the castaways meet their fate.
This structure is both an asset and a hurdle to the film. With the shipwreck sequences being so dour (and so effectively shot), they are almost the exact tonal opposite of the romance scenes. In contrasting these two extremes, neither is given time to outstay it’s welcome. This bodes well for the scenes at sea, which are particularly intense. After spending any amount time in a state of sustained terror (being lost at sea tops my personal list of fears), it’s nice to get a break. Unfortunately, this also gives the romance segments a sort of montage feel. These lovely interjections function just fine, but the two leads are both so electric and have such an easygoing chemistry that it’s hard not to want more.
Director Baltasar Kormákur opens the film with an impressive long take which immediately put to bed every stereotypical supposition I had made in anticipation of the film. A movie with the structure of Adrift has to live and die by the quality/believability of both its action and setting, and right off the bat it’s clear that both will be handled well. This prolonged establishing shot places us in an unforgiving ocean while also outlining the geography of the tattered ship where we will be spending the bulk of the runtime. We need only look at director Baltasar Kormákur’s previous work to see what we’re dealing with. He made The Deep, another tale of survival at sea; 2 Guns, the action flick which places Denzel Washington and Mark Wahlberg in a desert; or one of my favorites, Everest, the deeply effective tale of a doomed adventure to the peak of the titular mountain. Adrift evokes the same sense of adventure which fuels these films, while utilizing Kormákur’s impeccable eye for scale. Put your sea legs on. You will need them.
Both Woodley and Claflin transcend the typical YA romance structure by undercutting every potential stereotype. Claflin’s Richard could easily be the mysterious foreigner with ulterior motives, but he’s not. He’s a good man who cares about Tami and whose only sin is falling victim to the chaos of nature. Woodley’s Tami could easily be the blank slate upon which any young woman with wanderlust could project herself. Instead she gives us a fully constructed character with agency and abilities well beyond what most movies conceptually similar to this one typically offer. She’s not powerlessly wooed by Richard, nor is she ever under his thumb. And frankly, if you ask me who I’d rather trust my life to if ever lost at sea, I’m going with Tami.
Then again, if I’m ever lost at sea, I’m committing flare gun suicide by day three. Screw the ocean.
If ever a movie existed that I’d like to see a behind the scenes reel for, it’s Adrift. As I understand it, many of the water sequences are filmed in a real body of water, and not just a tub surrounded by green screen. It makes a world of difference when it comes to keeping the stakes appropriately high, and in a movie like this one – namely, one which would crumble hard if suspension of disbelief weren’t maintained – it’s essential.
I’ll say about Adrift exactly what I said about Everest: if this movie is at all of interest to you, see it on the big screen. You’ll be glad you did.
Adrift opens in Philly theaters today.
Author: Dan Scully
Dan Scully is a film buff and humorist living in a tiny apartment in Philadelphia. He hosts the podcast I Like to Movie Movie and is the proud father to twin cactuses named Riggs & Murtaugh. Also, he doesn’t really mind when Batman kills people. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.