This review was originally posted January 10th. Watch the new trailer below.
Norway’s Oscar-nominated Foreign-Language entry, the enjoyably supersized “Kon-Tiki,” follows the real-life adventures of explorer Thor Heyerdahl, who, in 1947, embarked on an eccentric mission across the Pacific Ocean, from Peru to Polynesia, on a wooden raft. His goal was to prove that Polynesia had been discovered and settled by ancient Peruvians, and not by Asians, as went the leading scientific belief. “The oceans aren’t barriers, but highways,” says Heyerdahl (Pål Sverre Valheim Hagen) in the film.
Heyerdahl assembles a ragtag team of raftsmen, including a recently divorced refrigerator salesman who understands ship mechanics, two sailors (one a ladies’ man, the other a taciturn WWII veteran) and, importantly, a man with a movie camera. Silent, flickery black-and-white sequences pop up periodically in the film, mimicking the actual 8mm footage shot by Heyerdahl and his crew while onboard the raft. The real footage became the documentary that would win Heyerdahl an Academy Award in 1950.
The ocean is a central character of “Kon-Tiki,” occasionally outshining the film’s raft-bound human characters, but mostly bolstering their seabound drama to a level of exciting entertainment. The film is conventionally well made, sticking to the usual tenets of overblown Hollywood epics. It’s overscored for maximum emotional manipulation, and begins with one of my narrative pet peeves: the childhood flashback that explains in a pat way an adult character’s motivations. The cinematography and set design both have the high-gleam polish of money. (“Kon-Tiki” is Norway’s most expensive local production to date.) A big budget often results in aesthetic artifice; sure enough, this movie’s vivid colorful surroundings, lavish period detail and impeccably assembled raft are all too perfect. They glow with lighting.
Yet “Kon-Tiki” is a crowdpleaser. The film excels in aquatic special effects. The motley crew faces more than one shark encounter: each sequence is breathtaking, even heartpoundingly visceral. Early in the voyage a whale shark emerges, which is technically a harmless subset of the species, but this gives Heyerdahl and his men little comfort — with a flick of its massive tail, the whale shark could capsize the raft (and almost does). While luxurious widescreen lensing brings the heft of the gigantic creature to life, underwater photography does the same for the more compact if still frightening great white sharks that circle underneath the wooden vessel. Shark lover that I am, I marveled at the photo-realism of the beasts, particularly during a sequence where the war veteran hauls one onboard and takes bloody revenge on the animal for having eaten his parrot.
Animal rights sensitivity was not a major concern in the late 1940s, and the joyous volition with which the men gut the enemy shark reminded me of a similar scene in a film made in 1956 by Jacques Cousteau and Louis Malle, “The Silent World.” As in that French docudrama, “Kon-Tiki” reveres, respects and revels in wonder at the ocean, but also takes offense to it when the watery depths commit a seeming injustice. It may be the one aspect of “Kon-Tiki” that feels authentically old-fashioned.
Hagen is a genial leading man, with a Ryan Gosling-meets-Peter O’Toole look. He keeps the character charming and adequately absorbing, without really digging into the inner recesses of a mind obsessed by what was arguably a suicide expedition. His eyes sparkle appropriately when he speaks of the Inca sun god who inspires the mission, but he doesn’t tap the underlying insanity needed for such a role: see Gregory Peck’s Captain Ahab or Klaus Kinski’s Aguirre.
No matter. “Kon-Tiki” aims for dazzling breadth and visual scope, which it achieves, and shoots for depth primarily when filming in the 15-thousand-foot waters the men precariously float upon. What it lacks in character complexity and narrative nuance, it compensates for with booms and thunders of seabound gravitas. Huston, Herzog and even Cousteau and Malle deliver adventures that unsettle us as we watch in awe; “Kon-Tiki” co-directors Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg entertain us as we reach for popcorn.