A new feature film about Thor Heyerdal’s crossing of the Pacific ocean on a primitive balsa wood raft paints a complex picture of the man; but the dramatic maritime passage feels more than a little forced.
The first scene in "Kon-Tiki" shows us a young, confident Thor Heyerdahl showing off his prowess to friends as he leaps onto a chunk of floating ice in order to retrieve a saw. Losing his balance and plunging into the freezing water, Heyerdahl has an early brush with death; but even as he lies in bed recovering, surrounded by scolding adults, his eyes remain alight with the joy of adventure.
Decades later, as a young researcher and author, Heyerdahl (Pål Sverre Hagen) hasn’t lost his bright-eyed look; if anything, it’s been underscored by a physical posture that leans forward, anxiously and eagerly, the stance of a man scarcely tethered who cannot wait to see what’s up ahead. That sensibility carries Heyerdahl forward unflappably, even arrogantly, as he proposes a new theory to account for the early Polynesians. What if they originated in South America -- Peru, maybe? -- and not Asia, as the theory of the day had it?
Directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg re-create the settings that Heyerdahl moves through in a quest to realize his ambition to replicate a journey he believed ancient Peruvians may have made to the Polynesian islands fifteen centuries ago. From a jungle where he’s living among native islanders, to the urban and political jungle of 1940s New York, where he’s turned down flat by both a publisher and the National Geographic Society, Heyerdahl retains his self-possession and his calm. He’s nothing but sure of himself; a chance meeting in New York with another Norwegian, Herman Watzinger, (Herman Baasmo Christiansen) helps open doors and give impetus to the project that is about to founder even before getting launched.
In short order, Heyerdahl secures financial backing, gathers equipment and supplies and rounds up the rest of his crew (played by Gustaf Skarsgård, Odd Magnus Williamson, Tobias Santelmann, and Jakob Oftebro). He has little idea or expertise in the areas of navigation or raft construction; more than once he’s assured by others that he’s on a fool’s errand that will get him and the others killed out on the open water, far from help and, for a good portion of the three-month trip, in the radio shadow of the Andes mountain range. It’s fascinating to see Heyerdahl deflect all such doubts with a Zen-like calm and an insistence that all anyone needs is "faith."
But faith in what, exactly? Is it the ancient sun god of the Incas for whom the raft is named? The ocean currents that, if successfully caught, will draw the raft toward its goal (and away from a feared maelstrom near the Galapagos Islands)? Or perhaps it’s in Heyerdahl himself, whose demeanor is placid and affect is gentle, but whose ego rides roughshod over everything in his path, including his bickering crew and his marriage to wife Liv (Agnes Kittelsen).
It’s hard to fathom what, exactly, is going on with Heyerdahl. Could he truly be suicidal? Is he intoxicated with a sense of his own (somewhat questionable) ability? At a pivotal juncture, we realize something that was obvious from that first scene: Heyerdahl can’t swim. What possesses him to set out on an unpowered raft and trust in the mercy of the elements? The film sketches possibilities but offers nothing concrete. Like Kon-Tiki himself, Heyerdahl seems remote and inscrutable; we might project anything onto him that we please.
The journey itself is another matter. Mostly, It must have consisted of boredom, except for the parts we see near the start and at the end of the ocean crossing. Here, the film lapses into convention, drawing a portrait of rising tensions among the six-man crew, and is punctuated by everything a movie set at sea seemingly needs to have in order to be complete: Gigantic storms, equally gigantic aquatic life and, of course, sharks.
What sets this film apart from, say, "The Life of Pi" isn’t simply a matter of who occupies the seagoing craft in question; tiger, parrot, crab, or delectably handsome Nordic men. Without a sense of transcendence there’s no deep emotional current to move the story (or rather, to make it moving to the viewer). We get little transcendence here; what we do get feels instead like recitation.
The script, by Petter Skavlan, searches the raft’s nooks and crannies for drama, turning up the odd stowaway crab and unearthing deep fears and personal flaws in the crew. But none of what happens feels especially fresh or frightening -- with the exception of that huge storm at sea, which passes by in a flurry of spume before cutting to the salty morning after.
Otherwise, despite the atmospheric design and Geir Hartly Andreassen’s gorgeous open water cinematography, the film feels dramatically airless, as canned as the rations upon which the men subsist.