Reviewed by GREG KING
Directors: Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg
Stars: Pal S Hagen, Anders Baasmo Christiansen, Tobias Santelmann, Odd-Magnus Williamson, Jakob Oftebro, Gustaf Skarsgard, Agnes Kittelsen.
This epic film is a dramatisation of Norwegian adventurer Thor Heyerdahl’s epic 1948 journey in which he set sail across the Pacific Ocean, travelling some 4300 miles on a balsa wood raft to prove his theory that Polynesia was originally settled by people from South America rather than Asia. Heyerdahl also filmed the epic voyage which he turned into a documentary that won an Oscar in 1950. He also wrote a best selling book about his journey, which was translated into 70 languages and sold over 50 million copies.
But he has always resisted offers to turn his adventures into a feature film, until he sold the film rights to British producer Jeremy Thomas (the Oscar winning The Last Emperor, etc) before his death in 2002. Kon Tiki is a fictitious dramatisation of Heyerdahl’s journey, although it draws heavily on his own documentary and books for much of its material.
Heyerdahl was an ethnologist who proposed the theory that Polynesia was actually settled by natives sailing westward from South America rather than eastward from Asia as the prevailing theory of the time suggested. But his theory fell on deaf ears, as no publishing company, including the prestigious journal National Geographic, would touch it. Then one publisher suggested that only if he sailed from Peru to Polynesia would his theory be taken more seriously. Although he was afraid of water and unable to swim, Heyerdahl immediately embraced the idea.
He constructed a raft made out of balsa wood and using only materials that would have been available to the Peruvians some 1500 years earlier. The only concession he made to the 20th century was a two-way radio which was unreliable at best. He also assembled a crew of five young Norwegian men who were looking for adventure in the post war years. The motley crew was a mix of characters with no real scientific experience, but they seemed keen to accompany the determined Heyerdahl on his dangerous voyage.
Heyerdahl (played here by a lean and suitably blonde Pal S Hagen) is depicted as a charismatic but brash adventurer who paid a huge personal price for his obsession. His wife Live (Agnes Kittelsen) divorced him.
Characterisation is fairly thin and apart from the single minded and obsessive Heyerdahl, we learn little about the rest of the crew (played by Anders Baasmo Christiansen, Tobias Santelmann, Odd-Magnus Williamson, Jakob Oftebro and Gustaf Skarsgard). Nonetheless they inject large doses of humour into the material that staves off boredom for much of the journey.
It was a mentally and physically demanding 101 day voyage that pitted man against nature. Along the way they faced dangers from storms and sharks, and internal tensions as the claustrophobic conditions aboard took their toll. Most of the tension is caused by Herman Wetzinger (played by Christiansen), a bumbling, overweight machinist by trade who grew paranoid, nervous and panic stricken as the journey progressed, and whose actions occasionally put the rest of the crew in jeopardy. Apparently in reality the journey was relatively harmonious, but directors Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg have added some tension for dramatic purposes and to spice up the film.
Ronning and Sandberg previously made Bandidas with Salma Hayek, and Max Manus: Man Of War, a WWII drama about a renowned Norwegian resistance leader, that was a huge box office success in their native country. The pair have created a technically superb sea faring drama here that is at times reminiscent of the gorgeous Life Of Pi, albeit without the 3D and spectacular state of the art CGI created visual effects. Much of the film was shot on the ocean itself rather than in a large tank, which adds verisimilitude to the drama, and on locations as varied as Norway, Sweden, Bulgaria, New York and Thailand. Geir Hartly Andreassen’s beautiful cinematography gives the film an epic look and captures the vast open spaces of the Pacific, and also breathes life into the terrestrial locations.
This is a visually stunning and gorgeous looking film. Some actual archival footage is also incorporated into the fictional drama, and the production design and costumes all reek of authenticity. Kon Tiki is the most expensive film ever produced in Norway and the modest $15 million budget can be seen on the screen. The producers also shot two versions of the film simultaneously – one in the native Norwegian, and another in English to ensure international distribution.
However, this is also a fairly conventional and old fashioned piece of narrative story telling. There is no real emotional engagement with any of the characters, apart from Heyerdahl.