A festival regular in 2012, but scared from the wide-release ocean by the presence of a great white Life of Pi, the estimable Kon-Tiki finally gets a release two years later. Potential viewers include anyone interested in Thor Heyerdahl’s intriguing thesis – that the Polynesians had sailed to the islands from South America. But also anyone who likes watching half dressed blond men, or a rollicking sun-drenched adventure on the high seas.
The 33-year-old Norwegian Heyerdahl set out on his crackpot 4,300-mile journey across the Pacific in a balsa-wood boat in 1947. This film about his adventure quickly dispenses with his backstory – the reckless child who became an ethnographic adventurer, the searcher for truth whose thesis of trans-Pacific migration was laughed out of court. The film’s lack of real interest in whys and wherefores is clear in these early scenes, in the way New York, where Heyerdahl is hustling for sponsors, is bathed in the sepia matt finish of low-budget CG. It seems to barely matter, since this “getting the gang together” segment is just a warm-up for the main event, which is the journey across the ocean.
How do you lash a balsa boat together? Why balsa in the first place? Where did Heyerdahl get the plans for his boat from? Questions which go unanswered, and which show that deep down, someone at the planning stage in its production was as unsure about this film’s broad appeal as Heyerdahl’s detractors were about his quest.
This matters because, later on, after encounters with whales, buffetting by storms and an OMG of phosphorescent beasties, it’s the boat itself that starts to become the problem, and Heyerdahl’s increasing intransigence too. Why won’t he tackle running repairs with modern materials? From where does he get his great confidence that the South Americans/Polynesians did it this way too? Is the boat going to fall apart? Is Heyerdahl? We have no idea.
But what it lacks in technical grounding or a “relatable” hero, the film makes up in set pieces. And here you can really see why first Life of Pi, then All Is Lost and finally even Captain Phillips might have given Kon-Tiki pause. Though it does hit back with a few Hollywood moments of its own, as when one of the guys falls into the water and the sharks line up for dinner. Or when another of the guys literally wrestles a shark onto the raft itself – heart-in-mouth stuff, and all shot under a mercilessly bright sun in the very crispest of defs.
Yes, “guys”. There are six men on the boat, though apart from Heyerdahl (a steely Pål Sverre Hagen) and the plubby refrigerator salesman-cum-engineer Hermann Watzinger (Anders Baasmo Christiansen) they play as variations on a theme of blond, in various keys of gingery beard. Even the strikingly handsome Torstein (Jakob Oftebro) who is introduced early on as the ladies man, eventually sinks into the facial hair and bronze skin anonymity of the rest.
As for wider context, this being the 1940s when the world was getting back to normal after the Second World War, and might have been less keen on adventure than Heyerdahl had anticipated, little of that. Little too of a sense of 101 days passing, though of the claustrophobia of being half a dozen men on a bit of floating wood with a shed perched atop, plenty.
Apart from those early New York scenes, Norway’s most expensive film is technically highly accomplished, and uses striking cinematography to retell a story that has become part of the cultural DNA. And like the boat itself, it swamps, it sways but it gets there.
© Steve Morrissey 2014