Ever since the “Master of Suspense” Alfred Hitchcock captured the intensity of being stranded at sea in Lifeboat (1944), there have been numerous films, with varying levels of success, taking advantage of this fear shared by many: All Is Lost (2013), Life of Pi (2012), Open Water (2003), The Perfect Storm (2000), Dead Calm (1989), and The Poseidon Adventure (1972). While some feature elements of true events, Adrift, adapted from Tami Oldham’s memoir Red Sky in Mourning: The True Story of Love, Loss, and Survival at Sea, tells the remarkable true story of Tami and her boyfriend Richard.
Icelandic director Baltasar Kormakur has had a hit-or-miss career (Everest, 2 Guns, Contraband, The Sea), and this one mostly works on many levels: romance, adventure, suspense, natural catastrophe, and survival. Beyond that, it’s fantastic to look at thanks to the work of cinematographer Robert Richardson (9 time Oscar nominee, 3 time winner: Hugo, The Aviator, JFK).
Even though Tami’s remarkable saga occurred in 1983, it took all these years for the film to get made – further proof that it’s a new day in Hollywood! The story of a woman isolated in nature, fighting the odds to live another day would have (and this one often has) previously been back-burnered or shifted to have yet another manly man in the lead. Not this time. Shailene Woodley plays Tami and it’s her most physical role to date.
The opening scene shows Tami waking up on the damaged boat in the aftermath of Hurricane Raymond. It then flashes back 5 months to her arrival in Tahiti and her initial introduction to Richard (Sam Claflin), a charming solo sailor who is nearly, but not quite, her equal in free-spiritedness. The three co-writers, twin brothers Aaron and Jordan Kandell (Moana) and David Branson Smith (Ingrid Goes West) wisely opt against a first half romance followed by second half survival tale. Instead, the bits and pieces are doled out in segments that allow us to connect with the soul-bonding without losing the intensity of the stranded at sea tale. It’s a delicate balancing act that works thanks to the performance of Woodley and the camera work of Richardson.
For many of us, the concept of sailing from Tahiti to San Diego with someone we’ve known for a few months would be a bit overwhelming. But these two lovebird and adventurous spirits head off thinking of it as fun and an opportunity to find even more fun. It’s a story of the power of love and the strength of survival instincts. Rarely have a sextant, Skippy Peanut Butter and Tom Waits music, combined for such vital roles in a movie, and it’s nice to see Ms. Woodley gain a producer’s credit, since she was a driving force in getting Adrift made.
The 41-day ordeal is told from Tami’s view (it is, after all, based on her book), and the strength of this 23-year old gets the treatment it deserves with some absolutely terrific sequences filmed at sea. Though Tami doesn’t battle sharks or have Wilson the volleyball to keep her company, her coping mechanism is even more mind-bending. It may not be the light-hearted summer fare we are accustomed to, but it’s one worth watching.