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Lost at Sea 

Shailene Woodley
Shailene Woodley
STX Entertainment
 96 Minutes
Directed by: Baltasar Kormakur
Starring: Shailene Woodley, Sam Claflin  

When I was in elementary school, many, many years ago, we saw a number of short educational films shown on the trusty 16mm projector, and the undisputed favorites were the Air Force survival films. These movies were actually made by the Air Force and designed to be shown to pilots to help train them how to survive if they landed in harsh conditions, such as mountains, deserts, or at sea. We youngsters would watch in rapt attention as the downed pilot figured out how to inflate his life raft, catch fish and rainwater, and do whatever else was needed to stay alive until rescue. Our inherent fascination with survival under such harsh circumstances has apparently been shared with others, as witnessed by the neverending popularity of survival films from Tom Hanks’ Cast Away through Robert Redford’s All Is Lost to the latest, Adrift, which strands Shailene Woodley and Sam Claflin on a nearly capsized yacht for six weeks.


Adrift is based on the true story of Tami Oldham (Woodley) and Richard Sharp (Claflin) who met in Tahiti in 1983, fell in love and became engaged, and tried to sail a 40-foot yacht from Tahiti to San Diego. The trip was a disaster, as the boat was badly damaged in a major hurricane while in a little traveled part of the Pacific Ocean, leaving the couple with no power, minimal ability to steer the boat, and a limited amount of food and supplies. Despite these incredible odds, the boat was able to travel some 1,500 miles to Hawaii in 41 days, and some 20 years later, the real life Tami wrote a memoir about the journey that became the basis for this film.


Although Tami’s memoir may well have been compelling reading, director Baltasar Kormakur and a trio of screenwriters faced some formidable challenges in turning the story into a two-hour movie. For starters, while the couple’s ordeal was indeed harrowing, beyond a couple of scenes depicting the actual storm and Tami’s later rescue of a badly injured Richard, who had fallen overboard and shattered his leg, the story is pretty much one of endless monotony day after day on an empty sea with supplies dwindling. A little of that type of footage goes a long way, cinematically speaking.


Adrift adopts a most unusual story structure, the purpose of which only becomes apparent much later on in the film. The movie begins with Tami, who hit her head in the storm and was knocked unconscious, coming to and trying to grasp the situation. After taking steps to make the boat as seaworthy as possible, she is able to find Richard barely alive some distance away, holding on to a piece of wreckage. She does manage to get him on board and even sets his shattered leg, but he is pretty much immobile and helpless for the remainder of the journey.


As the film gradually recounts the 41 days the boat spent adrift, Kormasur intercuts these scenes with a series of scenes recounting how the couple met, romanced each other, and fell in love. Tami was an American from San Diego, whose love of adventure and desire to get away from a dysfunctional home life led her eventually to Tahiti, a paradise in the middle of nowhere. Richard was a decade older and had made a living at sea, so, after several months of rather aimless enjoyment of their environment, they agreed to accept a charter for a wealthy older couple, sailing the couple’s state-of-the-art yacht back to San Diego, where Tami would introduce Richard to her parents and hopefully reconcile.


The effect of the continued crosscutting between scenes after the storm and earlier scenes is at first confusing and later somewhat draining. Tami’s ordeal on the yacht is a harrowing tale of survival while fending off gradual starvation, mental confusion and hallucinations, and the extreme difficulty of having to do a wide variety of seemingly simple survival chores under most difficult conditions. Intercut this with scenes of Tami and Richard jumping into a lagoon in a Tahitian paradise and the effect is jarring.


A movie like Adrift ultimately rises or falls on two things: the reality of the peril and the strength of the love story. As the clip below indicates, Kormasur manages to put the audience in the middle of the storm and later makes the daily grind of survival that much grittier. Shailene Woodley carries the entirety of the post-storm portion of the movie with a gutsy performance that puts her fictional efforts in the Divergent movies to sham. Kormakur is aided considerably by some often stunning cinematography by the veteran Robert Richardson.


But Woodley and the script are far less believable in conveying a love story for the agest between Tami and Richard. Obviously the two cared a great deal for each other, as the real life Oldham’s memoir states, but that passion isn’t reflected in the film’s pre-storm scenes. Woodley and Claflin have a solid chemistry together and handle their scenes together well, but the conflicts that the film sets up, especially those resulting from Tami’s earlier life, seem like simple tack-ons to demonstrate that their romance wasn’t perfect. It’s only after the near wreck that the two share their most romantic moments, ironically at a time when Richard is completely laid up.


Most people will come away from Adrift with a remarkable admiration for what Tami was able to accomplish, essentially on her own, for six weeks in a crippled boat. Director Kormakur has explored the question of what it takes to survive in harsh conditions before, in Everest, which was essentially a story of a dozen or so Tamis and Richards isolated on the high slopes of Mt. Everest under equally treacherous conditions. So, the transition from the high mountain to the open sea isn’t all difficult. But Kormakur turns Everest into a dozen or so individual stories of life and death in the snow and ice and how each person faced his or her impending death. He does the same thing here, getting into Tami’s thought processes to portray what kept her going all those weeks.


Adrift is not a great movie, although it may give Shailene Woodley’s career a big boost, but it does what it sets out to do. It shows just what it takes to survive six weeks stranded at sea, both physically and mentally, and it does so in a framework that, even though the audience knows a lot about the ending (the movie is based on a memoir by one of the participants, a big hint about whether she survives or not), Kormakur is able to generate some actual suspense. Adrift isn’t the smoothing cinematic voyage, but it does bring its audience home safely.

This montage shows some of the stunt sequences from the movie.

Read other reviews of Adrift: 

Adrift (2018) on IMDb