Kon-Tiki

Norway (2012) Dirs. Joachim Rønning & Espen Sandberg

When I was a child all the name Kon-Tiki meant me was the 1961 no 1 hit single for The Shadows, a swift, breezy instrumental that I recall my father explaining was named after a raft. With this information, whenever I listened to the track I would envision something akin to canoeing or white water rafting. Many years later, thanks to this film, I now realise how mistaken I was.

Based on the famous real life expedition headed by Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl (Pål Sverre Hagen), Kon-Tiki is in fact a raft built out of balsa wood which Heyerdahl and five fellow crew mates navigated across the Pacific Ocean in 1947 from Peru to the Polynesian islands to prove Heyerdahl’s theory that settlers migrated from the west and not Asia as previously suspected.

Heavily dramatised, the story begins in 1920 introducing us to a young Heyerdahl in icy Norway by way of relating the fact our intrepid explorer cannot swim. A decade or so later Thor is now married to Liv (Agnes Kittelsen) and living on the Polynesian islands conducting nature experiments when a local reveals to them the legend of a god named Tiki who made the journey that inspired Heyerdahl’s theory.

After World War II, Heyerdahl fruitlessly tries to get his book published until one publisher mockingly suggests Heyerdahl builds his own raft and recreate Tiki’s journey to prove his risible notion. Having formed a crew of Herman Watzinger (Anders Baasmo Christiansen), Erik Hesselberg (Odd Magnus Williamson), Bengt Danielsson (Gustaf Skarsgård), Knut Haugland (Tobias Santelmann) and Torstein Raaby (Jakob Oftebro), and eventually secured financial backing and supplies, the Kon-Tiki set sail in 1947.

Putting aside the historical aspect of this tale and the detailed replication of the period setting on the production front, this is something very old fashioned about this film in that it could have been made in the 1950’s. It definitely has that classic Boy’s Adventure Tale vibe about it – brave men battling the elements and the marine kingdom in the name of science and pride with just their wits about them as weapons.

This limits Liv as the lone prominent female presence and is presented as the stay-at-home mother having bore two sons since the original expedition but she is not a helpless damsel or emotional compromise for Heyerdahl; the entire trip is organised without Liv’s help or knowledge, with Heyerdahl even sacrificing Christmas at home with his family to get it moving, eventually costing him his marriage, the first of three in real life.

Yet this isn’t an exercise in testosterone showboating or vainglorious arrogance, just a man with myopic conviction and a reputation at stake. Don’t mistake Heyerdahl for a bad or neglectful person, his central flaw is his thirst for adventure, shared by his crew, made up of two experienced war heroes, a former marine navigator, an ethnographer and in Watzinger, an engineer and fridge salesman. Well, it takes all sorts.

If you are wondering how a reputably flimsy material such as balsa wood could possibly be sufficient to carry five men (and a parrot) and their equipment across the Pacific Ocean, then prepare to be amazed. This was what was available to the Peruvians when they made their journey and Heyerdahl was resolute that his raft didn’t deviate from the fundamental design principles of Tiki’s craft, otherwise it would corrupt the point of the experiment.

The finished article is arguably more of a boat in appearance with a cabin, deck and sails, but no hull or an engine to drive it, and certainly not safety rails. Obviously for this film they used a much sterner and robust wood but the craft was indeed a genuine sea worthy construction. Against much advice, directors Joachim Rønning & Espen Sandberg chose to shoot this at sea and not in a tank, to ensure the physical tribulations experienced by the cast were genuine and credible.

Five men on a raft might not sound like a ticket to adventure but the elements were often against the crew as were the denizens of the ocean. If the ethereal delights of the placid underwater dwellers provided luminescent beauty then the sharks provided the danger. Recalling Jaws but with a whole group on the attack, the crew are forced to get down and dirty in fending off the ravenous predators, showing a moxie that makes Brody, Quint and Hooper look like sissies!

Relying on CGI only for a few touch ups and for the more excitable moment such as the raging storms and the climactic riding of the waves, the effects and set pieces are practical and authentic adding plenty to the viewing experience in terms of emotional investment, while the photography of the glorious seas off the coast of Malta provides an enticing vista to get lost in.

When basing a film on real events there is always going to be some artistic license applied to the narrative and from all accounts this is no exception. In the case of making the journey more interesting, 101 days is a long period to cover and both the quotidian and the eventful occurrences need to be represented in equal measure. Naturally a little extra sizzle appears sporadically, otherwise balance is just right.

Ironically it was some of the non-fanciful details that drew the most criticism from experts, highlighting a few technical facets which were proven distorted or simply incorrect. The most controversial change however was in the character of Watzinger, played by a slightly pudgy, awkward Anders Baasmo Christiansen in contrast to his apparent tall, athletic and confident real life counterpart.

But, Christiansen’s performance along with the rest of the superb cast, plays a huge part in making Kon-Tiki a captivating and thoroughly enjoyable old school adventure tale of inspiration and determination, bolstered by sumptuous photography and respectful storytelling. Look out during the closing credits which informs us this wasn’t the last expedition for Thor Heyerdahl!

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