Movies are America’s biggest export; the money earned from the royalties, distribution and merchandise of American films could easily help fund a small nation, but besides the monetary value, they have helped cement the United States as a never ending source of cultural ideas. However, although we usually see American movies that try to emulate European or Asian aesthetics, it’s quite rare to see filmmakers from those continents interested in crafting projects that look like a Hollywood movie, yet this is precisely what happens with Kon-Tiki. From its production values, to its casting and musical score, the film seems intent on recreating the rousing spirit of adventure films from Hollywood’s Golden Age and this makes it quite the little gem.
Based on a true story, the film directed by Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg, recreates the expedition undertaken by Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl (Pål Sverre Hagen) in 1947, as he crossed the Pacific Ocean—from Peru to the Polynesian Islands—in order to prove his theory that Polynesians had not arrived from Asia as originally thought, but from South America. If the journey itself wasn’t remarkable for its bravura, Heyerdahl also did this using a boat made out of balsawood and propelled only by a single sail, which he named ‘Kon-Tiki’ after the Inca sun-god, Viracocha. He was trying to recreate the exact same journey he believed these ancient civilizations had trekked.
The film plays out like a ‘50s-era adventure film, complete with flashbacks showing us a pint sized Heyderdahl defying his friends by jumping into a frozen lake, later living with his wife Liv (Agnes Kittelsen) in the Marquesas Islands where he first heard the theory about westbound immigration and later trying to fund his expedition by traveling to New York City, wonderfully imagined and recreated as something out of King Kong. The filmmakers are wise and don’t take too long before sending us off in the journey, and every scene that occurs before has us feeling like children completely enthralled by what happens onscreen.
Once in Peru, Heyerdahl and his group of Scandinavian sailors, including radio experts Knut Haugland (Tobias Santelmann) and Torstein Raaby (Jakob Oftebro), engineer and boat co-designer Herman Watzinger (Anders Baasmo Christiansen), expert seaman Erik Hesselberg (Odd Magnus Williamson) and sociologist Bengt Danielsson (Gustaf Skarsgård), board the strange raft as the whole world believes them to be insane. You know how the story goes… we follow them through the journey as they encounter sharks, severe sunburns and storms, bouts of insanity and even whale sightings.
The real life journey which lasted slightly over one hundred days is efficiently put together—with obvious dramatic flourishes—to make for two hours of brisk entertainment the likes of which Hollywood has pretty much forgotten how to do. Visually and thematically, the film is similar to Ang Lee’s Life of Pi, Geir Hartly Andreassen’s cinematography is even similar to the gold and neon maritime palette used by Lee’s DP, but unlike Life of Pi which shoved a flimsy spiritual message down our throats, the beauty of Kon-Tiki is that it knows audiences are smart enough to take from the movie the lessons they want, whether they be historical, anthropological or metaphysical.
The film doesn’t really put emphasis into developing the characters past archetypes related to their jobs but with Hagen at the helm, it’s able to evoke a feeling similar to that of Northwest Passage, a Technicolor extravaganza in which Spencer Tracy played adventurer Major Rogers. Hagen’s good looks (imagine a blonde Jimmy Stewart with Cary Grant’s sex appeal) make him an ideal hero and at the end of the day that’s all we want from Kon-Tiki.
A few years ago the filmmakers directed Max Manus: Man of War, which chronicled the tale of the title Norwegian resistance fighter and Kon-Tiki fulfills the promise offered by that uneven flick: it shows that Hollywood-style movies don’t always have to mean explosions, bikini clad women with one dimensional roles (even in her few scenes in this movie, Liv makes a lasting impression and makes us wish we learned more about her) and an eagerness to please teenage heterosexual males. Rønning and Sandberg have crafted an epic so ambitious that they even shot it in two languages (Norwegian and English) in order to reach a wider international audience. Even if the film doesn’t always succeed, it does for the most part leaving viewers with a huge grin on their faces.
Kon-Tiki is presented in stunning high definition which includes a superb audio transfer. Bonus features are limited to a making of documentary and versions of the film in both languages. It would’ve been interesting to learn more about the real life Heyderdahl, but there’s already a wonderful classic documentary about his journey available for free in services like Hulu. Ideally people will want to see that the second this film is over.