Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl’s 1947 raft trip from Peru to Polynesia, which forms the story of “Kon-Tiki,” is already the stuff of legend – particularly overseas. Heyerdahl’s own 1950 book was an international bestseller (indeed this writer remembers a battered paperback knocking around her childhood home), and the documentary he filmed during the trip itself won an Academy Award back in 1951. Which makes it a pleasing narrative to have this film, over six decades later, achieve a similar feat in getting nominated for a Foreign Language Oscar. But we have to wonder if there’s a certain sentimentality at play there (Hollywood does love a self-referential story, after all) because there is little more to “Kon-Tiki” than a fun, handsomely-mounted, old-style adventure story. And as impressive a feat as that is to achieve, especially outside of Hollywood, which kind of specialises in this sort of thing, those looking for something with more depth from this category may come away a little disappointed.
After spending ten years living as a natural scientist among the natives on a Polynesian island with his wife, conspicuously tall, blond, blue-eyed Thor Heyerdahl (Pål Sverre Hagen) has come to the conclusion that the accepted wisdom about how those islands were populated from Asia is wrong, and despite a lack of boat-building experitise, native South Americans could have drifted and sailed the 4,300 miles on rafts, following the path of the setting sun. Trying to sell his thesis to various publishers, he’s met with a stone wall until he decides to put his own life at risk, and the lives of the motley crew of friends and followers he gathers around him, by attempting to recreate the journey himself. The six men build the titular raft and set off on a journey of 101 days that sees them menaced by threats both external and internal, with their faith in each other, in Heyerdahl, his theory and the ancient Sun God Tiki all severely tested along the way while they become progressively blonder, buffer, bronzier, and way, way, beardier.
The whales and sharks, the flying fish and the glowing squid are all rendered spectacularly well, and some of the notoriously tricky water/storm sequences are as thrilling as any we’ve seen. So as a kind of Boy’s-Own thrill ride, “Kon-Tiki” fares very well, glorying in an old-fashioned and endearingly innocent way in its one-man-against-the-world narrative. But when it attempts a little more than that, the film paradoxically highlights what is really missing, and that means it falls short of really top-tier epics; hints and allusions to the psychology behind Heyerdahl’s obsessive, self-promoting and ultimately rather unlikeable, manipulative persona, are peppered throughout, but the character study is frustratingly underdeveloped. Lead actor Pål Sverre Hagen certainly looks the part in a Peter O’Toole-meets-Ryan Gosling way, but does not quite own the room the way those actors can, or the way that Heyerdahl must have, so it’s quite difficult to really relate to the supporting characters’ steadfast loyalty, let alone to Heyerdahl’s own inner turmoil. It’s commendable that they don’t want to paint him as an all-round heroic figure, however if the filmmakers want us to feel some kind of empathy for the personal toll the pursuit of this dangerous dream takes, well, the characterisation falls some way short. There is an interesting story to be told about the kind of quasi-religious attraction that certainty can exert, and that seems to be what Heyerdahl was offering, but, unlike the Pacific Ocean, this theme is simply not explored enough here. Heyerdahl remains out of the reach of our emotions, and the stakes therefore suffer.
There are other flaws too: the period settings can feel a bit anachronistic, especially in the New York sequence where, for example, the taxis, while period-specific are so blindingly clean and highly polished that they look like the lovingly-restored museum pieces that they probably are. And it is perhaps a factor in the source material too, but aside from the suspenders and fedoras there’s very little sense of where we are in history. Considering this journey happened just two years after the end of World War II, in which Norway was heavily involved, we might expect a little more context than one supporting character mentioning his role in the war one time. Similarly, the film’s sole female character has kind of a thankless task, though actress Agnes Kittelsen acquits herself well, as do all the supporting cast.
Our quibbles are, in the end, less important to the overall experience than the film’s good-natured competence in mounting the kind of old-timey tale of exploration and the pioneering spirit that we see rarely in our postmodern, deconstructionist times. And there are a few stylistic flourishes, like a lovely time ellipsis that sees us spin up through the clouds away from the tiny raft at night only to turn and fall back down to it in daytime, that point to a willingness to experiment with the strict classicism of the film’s form elsewhere. But in a category that traditionally allows Academy voters to show off their arthouse credentials, or their social awareness, “Kon-Tiki” may prove simply too lacking in both, too escapist and popcorny, to really figure in the race to the podium, especially against heavyweight competition from “Amour” in particular. However, having this film, which seems tailor-made for Hollywood, be made by Norwegian directors (the Hollywood-bound team of Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg) with a largely Scandinavian cast and crew, co-financed by countries across the region, and then to have it enjoy the kind of success it already has, is quite an achievement in itself; all wrapped up in a very enjoyable, if hardly challenging, high-seas adventure tale. [B]
This is a reprint of our review from the Göteborg International Film Festival.