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Kon-Tiki (2013)
Movie Reviews

Kon-Tiki (2013)

The true story of Norwegian Thor Heyerdahl, who sailed from South America to the Polynesian Islands on a raft, comes to life in this compelling and harrowing Best Foreign Language Oscar nominee.

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In 1947, Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl, along with five other men, sailed across the Pacific Ocean from Peru to the Polynesian Islands on a raft made of balsa wood and hemp rope, dubbed Kon-Tiki after after the Inca sun god. Heyerdahl mounted the expedition, in part, to prove his theory that South Americans settled in Polynesia during pre-Columbian times, despite the prevailing theory that the islands were settled by people from Asia. He also wanted to show that it was possible to make such a long and potentially perilous journey using only the materials available to natives of that time. Heyerdahl’s memoir of the expedition would be published in 1948, and in 1950, his documentary Kon-Tiki would be released. A year later, it would win the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature.

Heyerdahl’s story has since been dramatized into a Norwegian feature film, also called Kon-Tiki, which received a 2012 Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. Now that it has finally been given a U.S. theatrical release, some are comparing it to Ang Lee’s Life of Pi. To an extent, these comparisons are accurate, although there’s more to it than the basic premise of floating in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. In both films, the lead characters are on spiritual quests. In the case of Life of Pi, the title character was thrust into his quest when the ship transporting his family and his father’s zoo animals sank over the Marianas Trench; his faith in God was tested and ultimately strengthened as he struggled to survive on a lifeboat with a bengal tiger. In the case of Kon-Tiki, Heyerdahl’s quest is self-imposed, and it isn’t about faith in God so much as faith in the success of his expedition, which ties into the faith that he will be proven right.

Heyerdahl is played by Pål Sverre Hagen as a brave, determined man so narrow-minded that he neglects to be physically or emotionally available to his wife, Liv (Agnes Kittelsen), and his two sons back home in Norway. It’s not that he’s a cold-hearted person intentionally aiming to hurt the people in his life. He simply didn’t have the foresight to not enter a relationship in the first place, since it’s obvious that his first love is the thrill of the next great adventure. Perhaps his marriage would have lasted had there been no children, since it’s shown that, prior to the birth of their sons, Liv joined him on his travels. Be that as it may, the film establishes that Heyerdahl was a risk-taker from a very early age; the opening scene, taking place in his hometown in 1920, shows him as a seven-year-old recklessly jumping onto a floating ice block, which immediately gives way and sends him falling into the frigid waters.

On the basis of what the film showed me, I’m not convinced that Heyerdahl mounted the Kon-Tiki expedition in the name of scientific research, or even in the name of adventure. He might have had both in mind when he started out, but after a decade of failing to secure funding or receive support from international historians, anthropologists, and academic institutions, it stands to reason that he was motivated solely by the desire to prove his naysayers wrong. And so he does. But at what cost? The final scene is effectively bittersweet, for his physical victory is overshadowed by an emotional defeat, one he could have avoided had the scope of his vision broadened to include the feelings of other people. The tragedy of his existence is that it’s impossible for him to do so.

Joining Heyerdahl on the expedition are navigator Erik Hesselberg (Odd Magnus Williamson), Swedish sociologist and avid reader Bengt Danielsson (Gustaf Skarsgård), radio experts Knut Haugland (Tobias Santelmann) and Torstein Raaby (Jakob Oftebro), and engineer Herman Watzinger (Anders Baasmo Christensen), who supports himself by selling refrigerators. Also on board is a pet parrot named Lorita and a stowaway crab, the latter miraculously able to stay safely underneath the floorboards of Kon-Tiki the entire journey. Although the film is not a rip-roaring sea adventure, the crew does experience its fair share of peril, including a storm, a rather needless shark encounter, mental exhaustion, growing disillusionment with Heyerdahl’s obsessive mission, and even the strange irony that Heyerdahl isn’t able to swim.

The nature of the material doesn’t require Kon-Tiki to be a special effects extravaganza. Nevertheless, we are treated to several dazzling shots, including one of bioluminescent winged creatures swimming around the raft and another in which an overhead camera pulls up from the raft, goes all the way through the clouds and out the atmosphere, tilts up to reveal the Earth bathed in sunlight, rotates to reveal the moon and stars, tilts back down, and then falls back through the clouds and to the raft. The single best shot is technically the simplest yet emotionally the most powerful; the camera, positioned to be pointing at Heyerdahl, does a complete 360-degree turn, revealing nothing in the middle but a vast expanse of open sea. This is what Heyerdahl is up against. Given his penchant for taking risks, I’d say this suits him just fine.

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About the Author: Chris Pandolfi