In 1947, Norwegian explorer, Thor Heyerdahl, set out on an expedition with the intent of proving the widely discounted theory that the Polynesian Islands had, in fact, been settled by groups of South African people in pre-Columbian times. Armed with only a balsawood raft, a few modern day supplies, and a crew of five others, Heyerdahl and co. floated across the Pacific Ocean, only to complete their journey 101 days later, and thus proving that it was not entirely impossible for earlier South African people to have done the same. Accounts of the story have been widely spread through biographical re-tellings, academy award winning documentaries, and a television series, with each captivating audiences and inspiring future explorers over several decades.
Following in this tradition, Joachim Ronning’s and Espen Sandbarg’s take on the Kon-Tiki expedition sets out to offer a more human perspective as it explores the driving forces that lead these men to undertake such a fantastic voyage, as well as the obstacles that threatened them along the way. As an adventure tale, “Kon-Tiki” boasts undeniably breathtaking visuals and some gut clenching moments of suspense that freely draw inspiration from the surrounding ocean and the isolation of the raft. Unfortunately, in this old fashioned tale of man vs. sea, there seems to be a surprising lack of interest in the human characters, who quickly become indistinguishable within the film’s contrived plot.
“Doubtless a story of Norwegians drowning in the Pacific will sell a lot of magazines.”
In the time it takes to finally reach the day of the raft’s maiden voyage, we’re first presented with a look at how Thor Heyerdahl (Pal Sverre Valheim Hagen) came upon his theory and the risks taken to assemble both crew and funding for the adventure ahead. The introduction moves quickly as characters conveniently step into Heyerdahl’s life and offer the exact skills needed to proceed ahead. The film’s opening minutes, quite unsubtly, provide the audience with a quick history lesson on the anthropological importance of Heyerdahl’s theories while also attempting to provide some context on the man, himself. Here, Heyerdahl is portrayed as a fearless man who’s willing to sacrifice family life and personal safety in order to defend the theories to which he has dedicated himself. While overly simplistic in structure, Pal Sverre Valheim Hagen’s performance invites viewers to share in the passion which drives Heyerdahl and look past the initial contrived plotting in anticipation of the adventure itself.
“This is what we believe in.”
As such, the flaws evident in the film’s opening are mostly forgiveable. It’s the crew’s adventures over the Pacific Ocean that hold the most weight in viewer’s minds, after all. Yet, even after the Kon-Tiki finally embarks, much of the excitement is lost as the film begins to rely on the crew’s incompetence in order to rally up a sense of danger, rather than on the many natural forces that could easily end the voyage pre-maturely.
Much like in the opening, the appearance of obstacles develops a noticeable pattern and all is resolved a little too conveniently to leave a lasting impression. Even the personal problems experienced by the crew are only touched on briefly. With a number of conflicting personalities on board, and coming from a group of people whose backgrounds range from sociology researcher to artist to a decorated WWII radio expert, the lack of insight into the emotional consequences of such a long voyage is particularly disappointing. Only a few moments, such as the encounter with the whale and the reefs near the end, offer anything memorable.
Where the film does succeed is in its colourful visuals and careful use of open space to establish setting and atmosphere. The ocean is vast and the Kon-Tiki crew is very much alone. Against the seemingly relentless darkness of thunder storms and the sparkling blue waves that reveal various forms of marine life that follow the crew on their journey, the Kon-Tiki stands as a mere dot amongst it all. The crew’s realization that they’re truly at the mercy of whatever nature decides to throw at them adds depth to a narrative that, otherwise, often tries too hard to remain exciting. If nothing else, I would recommend giving this movie a watch on the basis of its visual direction alone.
“Kon-Tiki” is a beautifully shot film with an ambitious storyline that attempts to capture the sense of adventure that only such a fantastic voyage could offer. Despite a stand out performance by Pal Sverre Valheim Hagen, however, the narrative fails to excite or bring to life these legendary figures with the care they deserve.