Adrift begins with a body sinking into the abyss, surrounded by jetsam from a shipwreck. Tami (Shailene Woodley) awakens in the flooding vessel to discover her two-masted yacht has been reduced to zero masts by the winds and waters of Hurricane Raymond. Her fiance Richard (Sam Claflin) is nowhere to be seen, and the boat, while upright for now, is in serious danger of following Richard into the unknown depths of the Pacific. Shivering and covered in blood from a nasty cut on her forehead, Tami immediately sets about the business of survival at sea.
Directed by Baltasar Kormákur, Adrift is the true story of Tami Oldham. The screenplay starts in the middle, at the moment Tami wakes up alone in the Pacific, and works both backward and forward as the film progresses. Tami was a surfer and sailor, who found her way to Tahiti while beach bumming around the world in 1983. There, she met a kindred spirit named Richard Sharp, a British naval academy dropout who built his own sail boat, the Mayaluga, while working in an Australian shipyard. After an awkward first encounter, Richard and Tami hit it off and have an idyllic fling amid the Polynesian waterfalls and beaches, sailing Mayaluga from one tiny island paradise to another.
Their time together is interrupted when Richard gets a job ferrying the yacht Hazanya to San Diego. The proceeds from the 6,500 mile trip will pay for a year of beach lounging for the couple, and Tami's from San Diego, so she decides to tag along. It would turn out to be the most fateful decision of her young life.
After the storm passes and Tami is miraculously still alive, she sets about to render the ship as seaworthy as possible. She spots the Hazanya's lifeboat and finds Richard clinging to it, badly injured and delirious. With the senior sailor out of commission, Tami must navigate across the South Pacific using only her sextant, a makeshift sail, and her wits.
Kormákur is a prolific Icelandic director who seems drawn to stories of survival. His film The Deep, about an Irish fisherman lost in the frigid North Atlantic, was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in 2012. This time around, the water is warmer, and the seascapes much sexier. Both Tami and Richard's gorgeous Tahitian romance and the humbling vastness of the ocean are exquisitely rendered by cinematographer Robert Richardson, a three-time Oscar winner who is this movie's ace in the hole.
The queen in Adrift's hand is Shailene Woodley. Since she's in practically every shot, if Woodley doesn't get the job done, the picture sinks. Add in the facts that the production is working on the water, which as Steven Spielberg will tell you is a terrible idea, she's doing tons of stunt work, some of which looks fairly dangerous, and looks increasingly beat up as the story unfolds, and you know this is a daunting job for even the most experienced actor. Woodley nails it, again and again, in both the romantic scenes and the rough-and-tumble sailing sequences. Sam Claftin as Richard does solid service as the hunky dream date, but the most important thing he brings to the screen is good chemistry with Woodley.
Kormákur's director's touch is subtle to the point of invisibility. But he does provide a perfect example of the proper use of nonlinear storytelling. The key, it seems, is that if you want to introduce complexity to the story structure, the story you're telling needs to be fairly simple and straightforward. Tami's ill-fated trip across the Pacific was days of grinding boredom punctuated by moments of unfathomable terror, but it progressed pretty logically, and there's lots of room for flashbacks to explain exactly how she got into this mess. The increasingly fractured nature of the story also effectively mirrors our heroine's fragmenting consciousness as the stress and deprivations of the trip wear away at her sanity.
Adrift is a solid, midrange picture of the type that is increasingly rare. It's star-driven, suspenseful, and just plain gorgeous to look at. Despite its narrative of woman against nature, my primary reaction was a desperate need to go sailing. This is not the kind of picture that changes your life, but at least you won't feel ripped off after it's over.