Kon-Tiki Movie Review

Featuring: Pål Sverre Hagen, Anders Baasmo Christiansen, Tobias Santelmann, Gustaf Skarsgård, Odd-Magnus Williamson, Jakob Oftebro, Agnes Kittelsen
Directors: Joachim Roenning, Espen Sandberg
Screenplay: Peter Skavlan
Website: www.transmissionfilms.com.au/index.php/kon-tiki/
Australian release date: April 11, 2013

Reviewers’ one-word verdicts
rolanstein: glossy
Karen: enthralling

Based on legendary Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl’s written and filmed accounts of his famous 1947 raft crossing of the Pacific Ocean.

Stung by unanimous rejection of his theory that Polynesia was settled not by Asians, as per the commonly accepted position of fellow ethnographers, but by South Americans who had made the voyage by sea, Heyerdahl (Pål Sverre Hagen) sets out to prove his detractors wrong in the most emphatic way possible. On a raft assembled from balsa logs and other crude materials the South Americans of yore could have used, and with a radio the only concession to contemporary technology, he launches from Peru with a crew of six who place their faith in his theory that the stars, winds and currents will deliver them to their distant Polynesian destination.

Review 1: (rolanstein)
Heyerdahl’s amazing story is ready-made for the blockbuster action flick treatment. An epic journey into the unknown; a do-or-die quest for glory where space-confined characters are pushed to their physical and psychological limits; the beauty, power and elemental terror of the open sea, with its inherent spectacular visual possibilities…

All that’s missing is a surprise ending; we know in advance that the boys make it to Polynesia. Still, there’s a lot of dark-n-dangerous stuff to challenge them en route – more than enough, you’d think, to drive a rip-roaring tale all the way home and leave any action movie fan well-sated.

Curious, then, that Hollywood has left such cinematically rich material to a Norwegian filmmaking team to exploit. Stifle that cheer. These guys are working from the Hollywood recipe book. That is, Kon-Tiki is big on action (too big at times – more on this directly) and visually stylish, but small on substance.

To the good stuff first. The visuals are splendid, truly spectacular at times. The wide shots of the puny little raft adrift in the vastness of the mighty Pacific are arresting, driving home the isolation of the men from the rest of the human world, and the insane risk of their venture.

There’s a wondrous nocturnal sequence in which giant electric jellyfish put on a light show for the entranced crew. And a calamitous storm where thunder explodes like artillery and lightning flashes on giant looming waves that threaten to swallow the men and their craft in a single random gulp. All captured with brilliant cinematography, strikingly dramatic and realistic.

The film begins to come undone with the inevitable shark shenanigans. A couple of the crew sit on the edge of the raft dangling their feet in the water and ominous music kicks in, telegraphing impending fishy danger down in them thar depths, referencing Jaws.

A whale shark takes the men’s breath away with its sheer immensity as it cruises straight for the raft and passes directly underneath. We’re warned via some redundant dialogue that a creature of such size could capsize the craft. OK, but why would it? Whale sharks are the gentle giants of the sea, living on plankton. But not this one. It begins to harass the men, reacting to a stupidly flung harpoon by charging the craft like a goddamn bull, with the practised vindictiveness of Moby Dick! Ludicrous.

Worse, a crew member, livid at a shark for attacking his pet parrot when it takes a badly-timed dip in the brine, reaches over the side of the raft, grabs a passing white pointer by the tail, and hauls its massive bulk onto the deck. What is the guy – a crane? And when the monster comes aboard, instead of thrashing around with murderous intent and ripping into the scattering crew like a chainsaw, it wriggles around despondently, graciously allowing its captor to climb aboard its back and stab it to a bloody pulp. Put that scenario before any deep sea fisherman, and wait for the guffaws.

Silly, over-the-top action sequences like these undermine the credibility of the narrative, veritably trumpeting that this is a fictionalised representation of Heyerdahl’s story (incredible enough without such extravagant embellishment, surely), the facts secondary to on-screen thrill and spectacle. It’s difficult to take the film seriously thereafter. At least, it was for me.

This narrative credibility problem is compacted by the characterisation – or lack of. There’s a flashback to Heyerdahl’s childhood early in the film that showcases his dare-devil, reckless qualities, and his relationship with his wife (Agnes Kittelsen) is touched upon, along with his motivation for embarking on the expedition. But for the most part, he’s presented as an enigmatic figure, albeit a charismatic one (cudos to Hagen there).

The Kon-Tiki crew are barely sketched as characters. They are given little room to move as actors, spending much of the pic gaping aghast at sharks. Only one stands out: over-weight, recently divorced refrigerator salesman Herman (Anders Baasmo Christiansen), who begins questioning his rash decision to join the expedition soon after launch. He’s a remotely Falstaffian foil to hero Heyerdahl, endearing and mildly comic in his bumbling fearfulness. And he’s the only character who grows.

Heyerdahl begins as he started, a thrill-seekin’ Peter Pan figure who has migrated to a Boys Own yarn.

Review 2: (Karen)
Never let the facts stand in the way of a good story – and what a cracking good story Thor Heyerdahl’s 1947 Kon-Tiki expedition is. I wondered how closely the makers of the dramatised documentary Kon-Tiki had stuck to the facts, and if you’re curious too, you can read this very good wrap-up here (but please, after you’ve seen the film): Kon-Tiki Sails Again.

Let’s leave aside, for the moment, the whole question of how true the story is, and what obligation filmmakers have in this rather fluid genre. Kon-Tiki script writer Petter Skavlan (with consultant Allan Scott) delivers an object lesson in how to craft drama, and directors Espen Sandberg and Joachim Ronning, with their skilled crew, have realised a nuanced, enthralling feature.

The opening sequence establishes the character of Thor as a lad. Forging ahead of his playmates through the snow in his native Norway, he arrives at a hole in a frozen lake. Stepping onto cut blocks of floating ice to retrieve an ice-saw, he comes to grief before being saved from drowning by a friend. His parents beg him not to do anything so risky again, but young Thor sets his jaw and keeps his mouth shut.

The young Thor’s blue-eyed stare into the camera is then replaced with that of the adult Thor (Pål Sverre Hagen), now working as a zoologist in Polynesia with his wife Liv (Agnes Kittelsen), and we see how they hatch the idea that Polynesia was settled from the east – from South America, not Asia – contrary to conventional scholarship.

It’s masterfully economical storytelling. Every sequence adds to the fabric of the relationships, story and themes of the film.

Thor plans the expedition to replicate the journey from Peru to Polynesia on a balsa log raft following the wind and currents in the Pacific Ocean, and every difficulty he encounters in financing it further explains his character, charm and motivations. A scene in the Explorers Club, where Thor is clearly persona non grata, establishes a couple of motifs – “at least I won’t lose a leg to frostbite!” and the necessity of using authentic ancient methods to build the raft, both of which figure in the subsequent drama of character and incident – while simultaneously building on our understanding of Thor himself.

His team is similarly economically characterised. Thor introduces the European contingent to the newbie, Herman (Anders Baasmo Christiansen), with a neat summation of each, and one of the team does the same of Thor, so we get an idea of their loyalty and acknowledgement of his leadership. Later we discover they are all also aware of a massive and relevant weakness.

So, the adventurers set off on their journey, six men, each with their skills, flaws and demons. The douleurs and longueurs of the journey don’t become longueurs on the screen, such is the lusciousness of the visuals. And to the beauties of the natural world, ocean, sky and sea creatures, we might add lean, tanned Scandinavian men in their underwear…

Everything is beautifully put together. The music gives a sly nod to Jaws in a single tuba note, and at the end there’s a lovely sequence that starts like whale song and morphs into Andean flute, bringing the strands together yet again. The soundtrack throughout is not intrusive but supports the storyline. For example, the sound of the balsa wood logs knocking against one another, a background to the journey, is brought to the forefront only when Herman is visibly worrying that the raft will break apart.

The filmmakers boldly contextualise the story with a shot that pulls back from an overhead view of the raft, up through the clouds, and into the earth’s atmosphere, then looks at space and all its galaxies – the new frontiers – before turning back and zooming back down to sea level, where our adventurers are about to tackle the last part of their perilous journey, in an overt recognition of the timeless themes of our place in the cosmos, our human drive to know, to explore and explain.

Interestingly, this drive to know and explain is similarly, in Thor’s case – and perhaps unknowingly – contextualised in the Western worldview. The Polynesian man whom he consults about the Tiki legend already knows that Tiki came from the East. It’s the Western academic tradition that must postulate, hypothesise and test.

And here we come back to the issue of the truth of the story, and how popular culture fiddles with the facts for the sake of the narrative form and the created character. Thor, the character, becomes a legend in the popular imagination in a process perhaps similar to the way Tiki, a South American chieftain who sailed across the ocean before him became an idol in Polynesia.

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3 thoughts on “Kon-Tiki Movie Review”

  1. You know, rolanstein, I don’t think our views are really so divergent. My admiration of the textbook story construction may well have turned into criticism of its slickness if I’d been in a bad mood on the day. And my uneasy feeling about the oh-so-romantic story of Thor and Liv could have become an almighty huff if I’d read the article I linked to thoroughly before I drafted my review!
    Yes, it is definitely boys-own-adventure stuff, but golly I enjoyed the ride.
    Re the character of Thor himself, I think there’s a conscious attempt by the filmmakers to draw the parallel between him and the idol, Tiki – that is, I don’t think it’s just me who has drawn the conclusion about the way people regard these figures. And of course, character is action, blah blah; Heyerdahl actually did all that stuff, and whether you call it bravery or foolhardiness, confidence or arrogance, perseverance or pigheadedness probably depends pretty much on whether you agree with him or not.
    And hey, how amazing – apparently they did just hoick sharks out of the water!

  2. Karen, they might have hoicked sharks out of the water, but small ones only – absolutely, certainly, definitely NOT a great white of the size of the one in the movie. That thing would have weighed 1500kg plus. Utterly ridiculous.

    As for the whale shark – oh, please.

    These are not minor flaws or instances of poetic license; they’re major lapses in research and common sense that, for me, undermined the cred of the whole movie (in combination with multiple other factors).

    I think we’re fathoms apart, to be honest! That’s not to in any way discredit your review, which I enjoyed for its balance and observations of some of the good aspects of the film. My perception and weighting of other elements was other than yours, though, obviously. That’s how it goes sometimes. As long as clear reasons are given in support of assessments, diverging reviews of the same film can be equally valid, I think.

    Will get back re the other points you’ve raised when time permits. Just had to address that shark nonsense right now!


  3. OK, to your other comments.

    My responses to films can also be partly dependent on things like mood, energy level and knowledge/experience I bring to a viewing. Think it’s the same with most people. So yeah, either of us could have responded differently to the movie under different viewing circumstances. But for me, that’s by the by, another conversation. We have to go on our actual assessments, which diverge widely, I say.

    I don’t see how the story construction could be described as “slick”. The movie, yes – one of its faults, for me. Fine-lookin’ production, built hollow. Bit like a contemporary pop music hit.

    I thought the narrative was very slight, with important aspects glossed over or neglected – and I might as well include characterisation in that charge, since the two feed into each other (as I think you pointed out…or something similar). You laud the filmmakers in your review for delivering “an object lesson in how to craft drama” on the basis, partly, of their strategy of providing brief character backgrounds via the intros of crew to each other. Valid point as far as that exchange goes, but I say that was but one, tiny instance of clever crafting that paled to insignificance, given that very little further effort was made to develop character. Herman aside, I can’t recall anything of the personal qualities of the crew. They started as brief sketches, and ended as shades memorable only for their physical features – if that! I don’t call that good craftmanship.

    There was every opportunity to flesh out the characters during the journey. In the real deal, I imagine they would have had a lot of time on their hands, during which they would have talked to each other at length. The movie makers have decided instead to go for the big action number a la Hollywood, and no doubt out of the same motives. It’s a business, so fair enough. But where business strategies overweigh dramatic considerations, I start to lose interest.

    On this, why do two versions of the movie, one with the cast speaking in English, the other in their native tongues? Gotta be targeting the mainstream Anglo – ie: US – markets, surely? Again, to the film’s detriment in my opinion. I was wondering during the viewing why we were being served Scando-accented English and was quite startled to learn later that there were two versions of the film.

    I could go on about other differences in our assessments that I consider irreconcilable (eg: for me, the word ‘nuanced’ is inapplicable to this flick), but not much point in that. I’m happy to agree to disagree.

    Just one thing. I’m not sure of the point you’re making re Heyerdahl actually doing “all that stuff”. I am assessing only the character in the movie, as I think is the reviewer’s brief; whether movie Heyerdahl closely resembles real Heyerdahl, and how the latter might be judged, are not relevant to me. I maintain that the screen character was wooden and static. And I might add here, in the final wash-up not very interesting or appealing, except in terms of his adventuring. Heh heh – here’s a thought: perhaps that’s why the filmmakers concentrated on the action!


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