‘Do as the natives do, down to the smallest detail.’
Kon-tiki tells the true tale of maritime madness when explorer and pioneer Thor Heyerdahl decided to test a theory by crossing an ocean aboard a wooden raft. He made a documentary about this journey and its relevance, which earned him an Oscar in 1951, and indeed some of the footage from that is included here. It not only enhances the perspective of the voyage but also demonstrates how convincing the depiction of events are in this film as well as the performances of the central characters.
When Thor Heyerdahl (Pål Sverre Hagen with Eilif Hellum Noraker and Kasper Ameberg Johnsen in younger years) was a boy he jumped onto a block of ice and fell into freezing water in Lanik, Norway, resulting in hospital treatment and a lifelong inability to swim. He promised his parents that he would not attempt any further dangerous activities. Year later, after spending time in Polynesia with his girlfriend, he learns from an old man that ‘We believe that Tiki bought us from land beyond the coast.’ Rather than accept the widely held view that Polynesia was populated by travellers from the west, Thor begins to develop a theory that South Americans, perhaps from Peru, travelled from the east to settle in Polynesia 1,500 years ago. He is so certain of this that he believes he can recreate the journey using exactly the same technology – a wooden raft tied together with rope – that was available at the time. No one in New York will take him seriously but engineer-cum-fridge salesmen Herman Watzinger (Anders Baasmo Christiansen) is intrigued by Thor’s design and asks to join the journey. When they arrive in Peru they design and build the raft, a roofed shack with a painted sail: a balsa wood boat. With additional crew joining them, six men plus trusty macaw Lorita and a castaway crab head out from Peru seeking their destination. But their direction seems altogether too northerly and the journey has a multitude of treacherous possibilities: the storms and the sharks add to the troublesome situations ahead. Even if they do make the crazy journey and confirm Thor’s theory can they be sure that they will all survive?
Kon-Tiki is a compelling film on a number of levels. Were it fictional it would be a thoroughly engaging story, but Thor’s idea and the realisation that this was based on a real voyage that he actually undertook adds to the drama on-screen. The film takes in a number of locations: Norway, Polynesia, New York, Peru and, of course, the ocean, which is where the majority of the action occurs; in many ways the film is about locations and the voyages between them. As such the cinematography is crisp and lush, depicting light, shadow, colour, atmosphere and the characters’ reactions to them in an way that is eminently photogenic. But landscapes and visuals do not necessarily entertainment make, so Kon-Tiki’s drama is based around the way that nature can be as traumatically savage as it is beautiful and fascinating. The voyagers’ troubles involve sharks, storms, reefs, and the sense that they are heading in completely the wrong direction for the first hundred days of the journey. And, naturally, a small group in a small space creates tensions and the crew members have differing opinions of how they should achieve their goal. Yes, they are using maps, compasses and sextants, which were not available to Tiki, but some of the crew want a little more modernity than Thor’s determination to accurately recreate the journey. They have a film camera to record their excursion for (they hope) posterity evening aiming, dangers aside, to make a documentary of their floating experiment by shooting the craft from an inflatable dingy attached to the main raft by rope. Despite the tension, there is also a fair amount of humour on-board, most notably when they mistake shark repellent for tomato soup powder and try to divert the sharks with that.
Kon-Tiki makes for utterly fascinating viewing whether you are familiar with the story or not, as it is a tale that is well told, convincingly acted (to the extent that the actual footage and the recreated footage seem indistinguishable in context) and lovingly photographed. Enjoyable naturalistic adventurer drama. Recommended as educational entertainment and just good watching. It is worth noting that Kon-Tiki was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Its production was interesting in that it was filmed in both English and Norwegian, rather than being dubbed, so the same film was shot twice with the same actors. Only the Blu-Ray has the original Norwegian version of the film (as well as the English one, so you can choose) whilst only the English version (which is still great!) is on the DVD.