Kon-Tiki,” directed by Norwegians Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg, is an adventure story set in a time when the world still held mysteries. Based on the true story of Thor Heyerdahl and his 1947 expedition, it focuses on six men on a raft at the mercy of the elements. With echoes of “Jaws” and more recently “Life of Pi” it is one of the best examples of the man vs. nature stories. The incredible thing is all six of them volunteered to be on a boat with almost no modern means of survival. The point? To make history of course.
From the moment he is introduced as a young boy falling in Norway’s icy waters, Thor Heyerdahl (Pål Sverre Valheim Hagen) is portrayed as a risk taker and as man willing to defy authority. While living in Polynesia in 1937, a native told him the islands were populated by people who came by the sea from the east, contrary to the established belief that Polynesia was settled by people from the west. After bringing his theory to New York City and being rejected by every scientific institution including the National Geographic, Thor decides to put his money where his mouth is.
To prove that 1500 years Peruvians saw the Pacific Ocean as nothing more than a highway to be travelled by balsa rafts, he assembles a crew of five men and builds the very same raft they would have used to travel a distance of 5,000 miles. It is an interesting crew, made up of a war veteran, a radio operator, an ethnographer, a sailor, and even Herman (Anders Baasmo Christiansen) a refrigerator salesman who used to be an engineer. Naturally, they also bring a parrot. Many said they were crazy, and even Thor’s wife (Agnes Tikelsen) was worried that her children would end up growing up without a father. But with the blessing of the Peruvian government, who saw the journey as a cultural benefit, the crew left Callao in 1947 aboard the raft Kon-Tiki, named after the Inca sun god.
As it should be expected, there are a few lull moments after the crew sets sails as we are watching six men who sometimes have not much to do aboard their raft. However it is not long before many problems break the monotony. It begins with small issues, such a crewmember getting seasick and another realizing he doesn’t know where starboard is. Then the ship runs into a storm, the radio breaks down, the raft’s wood begins absorbing water and sharks begin circling. Even worse, the raft is heading in the wrong direction. If they do not correct their course, the Kon-Tiki’s crew could end up in the Galapagos Island and into a Maelstrom, which is basically a whirlpool in the middle of the ocean. They wanted an adventure; they got one.
This is one beautiful movie. Every wide shot of the ocean is like a postcard, showing crystal-clear water under a gorgeous blue sky. When the camera goes under water to follow a crewmember in a shark cage, we see fishes displaying all the colors of the rainbow sticking to the underside of the raft. If it wasn’t for the sharks, the food, and the sunburn, you almost wish you were right there with these adventurers.
The performances also really take off once the raft leaves Peru. Initially these men are enthusiastic and even playful about their journey, especially Thor who constantly tells his crew to have faith. Yet as their navigator points out, they also have a sextant that says they are going the wrong way. As their problems mount, morale drops and the men turn somber and gloomy. Thor’s obsession with disregarding modern technology runs the risk of turning him into a Captain Ahab character, and the crew begins to question his leadership.
Like all movies “based on a true story” there are undoubtedly a few exaggerations for dramatic effect, but this is still one of the best adventure movies to come out in years. In a world filled with flying superheroes fighting villains from outer space, it is nice to see a film set in a time when there was still wonder in exploring our own world and there were still mysteries to be solved by crazy adventurers.
(“Kon-Tiki” is available on DVD and Blu-Ray.)