I think the reason we like fact-based survival movies is that we can’t help but put ourselves in the place of whatever poor soul it is we see on screen and ask, “Would I be able to do that?” Whether sewing up a gaping wound, going prolonged periods without food or water, or hacking off a limb to survive, the sort of safe yet vicarious experiences these movies provide are the secret to their longevity. That we come to admire those who come through the disasters we witness on screen can’t be discounted either. (For the record – as far as I would go to survive is eating weird bugs. Ask any more of me and I’m a goner.)
Baltasar Kormakur’s Adrift is one of the better recent entries in this genre, as it recounts the story of Tami Oldham and Richard Sharp, a newly-engaged couple who ran afoul of a category 4 hurricane while sailing from Tahiti to San Diego in 1983. Their boat capsized, and they had to contend with a damaged boat and endure the elements plus a lack of food and water over the course of six weeks.
Shailene Woodley and Sam Caflin play Oldham and Sharp. The script wisely takes its time, allowing us to get to know the duo before pushing them into the center of the storm. Oldham is a free spirit, going from port to port and job to job, employing a haphazard approach to seeing the world. It’s hinted that her home life as a child was never stable, that her wandering was inevitable, and that somehow she’s been able to maintain a sunny disposition despite her trials. If the script has a fault, it’s that it barely gives us any information about Sharp. We know that he built the boat that he sails in, his mother died young, and … that’s about it. That Claflin is such an engaging actor helps immensely in keeping us engaged with this sketchily-drawn character.
Kormakur wisely opens with the aftermath of the hurricane, showing us the plight these two have gotten themselves into, then flashing back to show us their cute meeting and developing relationship. This is a wise strategy that’s used throughout the movie, and our empathy for Oldham and Sharp grows as we witness moments from their past before cutting back to them fighting for their lives.
The director is something of an expert where films of this nature are concerned. The Icelandic filmmaker helmed 2012’s The Deep, which is about a fisherman in a similar plight, as well as 2015’s Everest. In each of these movies he has a way of not overplaying the drama of the situation. He knows that by pulling back and focusing on the human element there is no need to exaggerate the severity of the situation they find themselves in. Much like the Robert Redford feature All is Lost, Adrift is a quiet film that isn’t concerned with heroics as much as how the given situation affects the victims and how they respond to it.
As such, praise must be given to Woodley, who, at times, literally and figuratively carries the movie. She’s required to run the emotional gambit as well as give a distinctly physical performance that’s wholly convincing. In the end, Woodley does Oldham’s story and efforts proud, and the fact that her real-life counterpart cooperated fully with the making of Adrift speaks volumes to the movie’s authenticity as well as its sincerity.
Contact Chuck Koplinski at email@example.com.