Stories of people stranded in the wilderness have always been natural fodder for movies, as ideas of being lost in the jungle or shipwrecked at sea tap into a natural anxiety about the smallness of our place in the world, and the uneasy need for co-dependence that it inspires. And yet, without diminishing some formative examples (e.g. “The Naked Prey” and “Aguirre, the Wrath of God”), or paving over the past’s most hideous aberrations (George C. Scott’s “The Savage Is Loose” springs to mind), it seems as though the whole “lost adventurers” genre is just starting to find itself. “Adrift” may be the first of these movies that actually explains this recent phenomenon.
And it’s been a long time coming: In just the last eight years or so, we’ve seen mainstream American movies about a dude getting wedged beneath a rock (“127 Hours”), an older dude getting stuck in wolf country (“The Grey”), and an even older dude getting stuck in the middle of a white squall (“All Is Lost”). We’ve watched a kid try to survive a tiger on the ocean (“Life of Pi”), a woman try to survive a satellite in outer space (“Gravity”), and a cute dog try to survive Idris Elba and Kate Winslet (“The Mountain Between Us”). We’ve even watched Leonardo DiCaprio try to survive a death-defying quest for an Oscar (“The Revenant”). Later this year, Mads Mikkelsen will crash into the “Arctic” in order to anchor one of the very best films of this kind.
To what do we owe this rise in stories of extreme isolation? Is it an inevitable byproduct of better special effects? An attempt to exploit an a more natural source of spectacle in a superhero-dominated pop cinema that’s increasingly dependent on delivering the kind of thrills you can’t get at home? Well… yes. Yes to both.
But “Adrift” offers a broader explanation, and maybe a better one. Without explicitly addressing social media or the psychic toll of the digital world — the incident the movie is based on took place in 1983 — this harrowing and immersive survival thriller makes broad overtures to the hyper-connected 21st century. It recasts the survival thriller genre as a semi-automatic response to a society in which we’re constantly surrounded by each other, and centers on a young runaway who can only recognize the strength she gets from other people once she’s been left to die alone.
We first meet 23-year-old Tami Oldham (a smart, convincing Shailene Woodley) after something has gone terribly wrong with her sailboat. Tami has been unconscious inside the waterlogged hull ever since bonking her head during a massive storm, and she wakes up on a gray morning to find that the ship is half-submerged and her partner — a hunky yachtsman called Richard Sharp (Sam Claflin) — is nowhere to be found. If the splintered mast wasn’t enough to convince us that Tami is in serious trouble, the seasick sound design (a nauseating mix of groaning wood and white noise) would be enough to do the trick.
As soon as it’s sufficiently established that Tami is “Adrift,” the film jumps a few months back in time, reintroducing her as a peripatetic young woman who traveled to Tahiti because she felt stranded in her hometown of San Diego. Adapted from Oldham’s memoir “Red Sky at Mourning: A True Story of Love, Loss, and Survival at Sea,” the leaky script (by Aaron and Jordan Kandell, and David Branson Smith) only provides an unhelpful sketch of what Tami’s family life was like before she left, but it’s clear that she’s trying to prove something to herself. “I want to chase adventures” is her own generic rationale for the wanderlust, but that doesn’t seem to cover it — maybe it’s just the wounded stoicism of Woodley’s performance (the actress equal parts self-aware and self-determined), but it’s hard to shake the sense that she won’t allow herself to embrace other people until she convinces herself that she doesn’t need them.
Of course, Tami has barely set off on her own before she falls in love with Richard, a top-notch British sailor with a few more knots under his belt. Claflin plays him like the kind of rugged nomad who, in any other movie, would be hiding a dark secret of some kind — here, he’s just a good bloke with big love for the open water. His romance with the much-younger Tami is thin but sweet, carried along on the currents of Volker Bertelmann’s urgent piano score (but also stunted and shortchanged by how often the movie cuts back and forth between the present and the past).
No stranger to natural peril, “Everest” director Baltasar Kormákur has adapted a straightforward account of total abandonment into a bold, slightly misshapen film about someone who finds tremendous personal strength in the people she’s lost or left behind. While there are moments of real suspense here — especially whenever Tami jumps into the ocean to fish or fix the boat — “Adrift” foregrounds the emotions below, focusing on them even when it refuses to flesh them out. At times, the film even allows the emotions to override the reality of what really happened to Tami Oldham, twisting the truth in at least one bemusing way (believe it or not, there are things to spoil here).
How fortunate, then, that the queasy immediacy of Kormákur’s filmmaking keeps things on course. Shot at sea, with a crew that was supposedly barfing just off-camera of every shot, “Adrift” is told with an inimitable sense of place and a rare attention to detail, both of which help to ensure that we never lose sight of the terror at hand.
When all else fails, which it sometimes does, Woodley is there to right the ship. She’s eminently believable as a whip-smart, hyper-capable, iron-willed human being who still finds a way to doubt herself (“I don’t consider myself a sailor,” she demurs at one point). At its best, she wills “Adrift” into a moving story about a natural born wanderer who needs an anchor to know her own strength.
“Adrift” opens in theaters on June 1.