Adrift flutters between romance and survival but adds a cruel twist to a true story.

While the film trailer for Adrift might suggest this is a survival film, watching it and its unexpected ending is a totally different experience altogether. Some viewers might even find the film emotionally jarring, if not left with a bitter-sweet aftertaste.

Based on a true story of survival against all odds, the film is based on the 2002 memoir Red Sky in the Mourning: A True Story of Love, Loss and Survival at Sea by Tami Oldham Ashcraft. In 1983, Tami and her fiancé Richard Sharp were hired to sail a 40-foot yacht from Tahiti to San Diego. Nautically, that’s roughly 4000 miles through the Pacific Ocean. In the film, there’s no indication if the yacht was fitted with an outboard engine. This meant sailing with the wind like the old days. About halfway through the journey, they run into Hurricane Raymond, which according to US Coast Guards are Category 5 tropical cyclones. With surface winds nearing 250 kilometers per hour, on land that means widespread catastrophic damage (as was the case with Hurricane Katrina in 2005) with a radius of almost 300 kilometers. To put that in perspective, imagine a small pleasure craft sailing the high seas, with no land in sight, with nothing but the wind and then sailing into a hurricane with the aforementioned intensity.

The film starts with Tami (Shailene Woodley) barely conscious and floating in the water and debris of the sinking yacht. We don’t know if she is hallucinating but after getting herself back on the deck, Tami begins a desperate search for Richard. After a short but incredible segment, we see Tami rescuing Richard from a nearby dingy. He is in bad shape and in need of urgent medical aid. The film then cuts to five months before the storm and when they meet for the first time. We see them as two free spirited individuals struck with wonder lust and then with each other. From here on the films splits its narrative into a two-pronged fork. At times we are watching the aftermath of the disaster and their struggle to find land and then it cuts back to their budding relationship. Everest disaster film director Baltasar Kormákur uses this approach to the very end until a cruel twist is revealed with the intensity of a sledgehammer hitting the gut.

Some viewers may complain that the twist isn’t necessary as actual records show otherwise. But cinematically speaking, the altered storyline has a lot more going for it as we are given a lot of time to care about them and why they should survive this calamity. So much so, the film doesn’t really focus on the storm (we only get to see its full force 75 minutes into the film) but instead on the will of a human who has absolutely no defense against the infinite wrath of Mother Nature. That said, when we actually see it happening, the entire scene is absolutely terrifying and almost as heart stopping as that epic scene in The Perfect Storm. Just be aware that the camera work is spot on with the pitch and roll of the boat, in that viewers with motion sickness may actually feel woozy during some parts of the film.

Like Jennifer Lawrence in The Hunger Games, Woodley has moved on from her claim to fame in the YA movie franchise Divergent, and its sequels. If The Fault in Our Stars was a remarkable indication of her emergence into strong emotive roles, Woodley is even stronger in Adrift having developed a refined set of skills in addition to a physically demanding role. Speaking of which, if you liked Tom Hanks in Castaway or Robert Redford in All is Lost, then Woodley won’t disappoint and neither will this film. Just keep your final expectations in check if you aren’t aware of the actual story. The less you know, the heavier that sledgehammer will feel.

Rating: ★★★½☆

About Lloyd Bayer

Besides his passion for travelling, photography and scuba diving, Lloyd is a prolific film critic having contributed hundreds of film reviews to web and print journals, including IMDb and local daily Khaleej Times.