Review: ‘Adrift’ Steers Towards A Successful Survival Story

Aaron Neuwirth reviews 'Adrift', a survival story about a young woman focused on guiding a damaged ship back to land, following a bout with a hurricane.

Whether or not there’s a true story associated with the film in question, I get a certain value out of survival films. Seeing a sense of desperation in characters can play well when actors find the right ways to dig into the role. Seeing the associated visuals that can accompany this genre adds a visceral and generally plausible sense of danger as well. Adrift doesn’t climb to the levels of some of the better survival stories out there due to a rather perfunctory romance story that occupies a lot of the screentime, but there are other areas where it deserves credit.

Based on the true story that was later turned into a memoir by Tami Oldham, the film recounts the extraordinary journey forced to be taken by a young couple, in 1983, following a hurricane that causes major damage and injury to all involved. Shailene Woodley and Sam Claflin star as Tami and Richard, two travelers who meet in Tahiti, form a romance, and eventually set out to journey across the Pacific Ocean.

The story is a straightforward tale, but director Baltasar Kormakur and his team decided to go with a structure best suited to balancing the story’s romantic angle and the aftermath of an unexpected disaster. Utilizing flashbacks, the film frequently cuts back and forth between the times leading up to the hurricane and what took place after. Ideally, this works as a way to strengthen the relationship and keep it relevant as the film carries forward. This is particularly in service to Claflin, as he’s stuck in one position for what amounts to half the movie, thanks to injuries sustained by the hurricane. If only the romance-centric half of the film had more energy.

As it stands, there’s nothing egregiously terrible about a film depicting a courtship between two talented actors. However, one does get the feeling that Woodley and Claflin are coasting through these scenes that equip them with schmaltzy dialogue, fully aware of the impending doom that awaits them. Still, the two make the most of it, and when the film isn’t out to impress you with stormy weather effects or its depiction of a ruined boat making its way across the open ocean, the look of Fiji (which subbed in for Tahiti) has a lot to offer.

All this in mind, flashbacks to the pre-storm times generally go on long enough to have a viewer wondering when they’ll get back to Tami doing her best to keep the ship afloat while dealing with her injured boyfriend and the dwindling amount of supplies. This is where Woodley gets to shine and continue to show why she became a movie star fit for dramas like The Fault In Our Stars, as well as action flicks like Divergent. With Claflin once again giving up mobility and assumed leadership responsibilities to the true female lead, Woodley does all the heavy lifting, and the effort mostly pays off.

As Tami, Woodley is responsible for seeming like a person who could feasibly navigate a broken vessel across the ocean. While not pinned to a rock or stuck on a mountain, this is the sort of situation that can demand attention with the right handle on authenticity. Fortunately, it doesn’t always take a veteran like Robert Redford in All is Lost to pull this sort of thing off. Where the script by Aaron & Jordan Kandell and David Branson Smith has little innovation concerning the handling of the flashbacks, enough work is done to make these survival portions very involving.

Kormakur is no stranger to handling a sense of peril in his films either. The Icelandic director’s Everest worked well as an intense procedural, while 2012’s The Deep went over a perilous situation involving a fisherman stuck in a freezing ocean. With the help of veteran cinematographer Robert Richardson, there’s no shortage of great footage depicting the struggles Tami has at sea and the enormity of the situation. Between the clever use of angles and some tricky extended one-shots (likely aided by some effects in a few cases), Adrift does the job of earning a viewer’s patience as the film settles them into an emotional experience.

The film may ultimately rely on your attachment to the characters and the traumatic journey they are forced to take, but even if that doesn’t entirely pull one in, there’s enough to latch onto as far as the sense of worry that comes from working out how to survive. Even with a modest budget, there’s enough talent on display to make the harrowing adventure aspects play well in a theater. Woodley helps keep things afloat as well, which is good enough for a romantic survival drama arriving in between the summer blockbusters primed to blow everything around them up.

Written by
Aaron Neuwirth is a movie fanatic and Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic from Orange County, California. He’s a member of the African American Film Critics Association, the Hollywood Critics Association, the Online Film Critics Society, and the Black Film Critics Circle. As an outgoing person who is always thrilled to discuss movies, he’s also a podcaster who has put far too many hours into published audio content associated with film and television. His work has been published at Variety, We Live Entertainment, Why So Blu, The Young Folks,, Screen Rant, and Hi-Def Ninja.

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