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
Australian release date: April 11, 2013
Reviewers’ one-word verdicts
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.
For other Boomtown Rap movie reviews, see Movie Review Archives