A risk-taker since childhood, scientist Thor Heyerdahl (Pål Sverre Hagen) has developed a theory that Polynesia was populated by settlers from South America, rather than Asia as widely assumed by the scientific community. In 1947, unable to find a publisher to print his thesis - much of it devised during his stay on Fatu Hiva, an island in the Marquesas - he hatches a daring plan to cross the Pacific on a balsa wood raft, just like the ancient Incas before him. Unshakeable in his determination, Heyerdahl simply refuses to give up - despite the fact that the scientific community openly mocks him, he can't find funding for the voyage, his first recruit for the raft's crew is a stocky refrigerator salesman, and he himself can't swim.
Review by Louise Keller:
First and foremost, this story about a Norwegian adventurer who goes to extreme lengths in 1948 to prove his theory that Polynesia was populated from the East, not from Asia is an extraordinary one. Thor Heyerdahl cannot swim yet puts his life in the hands of the ocean, the elements and his faith, when he decides to spend 101 days on a raft drifting with the currents from Peru to Polynesia. This Oscar-nominated depiction of Thor's journey offers many surprises, including the fact that directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandbergin have opted to make an English language film with their strong Nordic cast and strikingly handsome leading man Pål Sverre Haggen in the role of Thor. Much of the exposition is fascinating, although the execution is surprisingly rigid with the plot's natural crescendos failing to peak and our emotions never stretched or allowing us to feel as though we are actually on the raft, sharing the experience.
After a prologue in which we meet Thor as a youngster having a near drowning experience in the icy waters of Norway, we meet him as an adult, writing his anthropological thesis in Polynesia while living there with his beautiful wife Liv (Agnes Kittelsen). The ten years spent there embracing the lifestyle as they live among the natives and enjoy the natural beauty of their surroundings skips past before we experience Thor's frustration at not being able to find a publisher. This is the trigger for the idea of proving his theory by repeating the 5,000 mile journey made 1,500 years earlier, using the same balsa logs tied together with rope and materials available at the time.
Hagen is the film's greatest asset: reminiscent of the young Peter O'Toole as he looked in Lawrence of Arabia, disconcertingly handsome, wildly charismatic with an intense touch of madness. Only one of the motley crew of five that Thor gathers together has been to sea; the others sign up for a variety of reasons that are never properly explored, although we sense the refrigerator salesman (Anders Baasmo Christiansen) wants to run away from his life. When funding at last makes the journey possible, Thor tells his wife in a telephone conversation that he is not coming home to her and their two boys.
Under the constant gaze of the Inca sun god Kon-Tiki emblem that gazes down from the raft's sail, the men set sail, amid sea sickness, panic attacks, radio problems, loss of faith and disagreements. Footage (later used for Thor's Academy Award winning documentary) is shot constantly and the scene in which a dinghy is launched in order to get some shots of the raft in the middle of the ocean is nicely done. The shark attack is the film's most terrifying moment but tension is quickly lost.
Shot in Norway, Sweden, Bulgaria, Malta, Thailand and the Maldives, the locations are stunning and the film looks splendid. Although the story is a knockout, I was a little disappointed that the experience did not affect me more.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
The story has been told before on the screen (including Heyerdahl's own Oscar winning film documenting the journey), but it deserves retelling now that digital technology enables filmmakers to fill our eyes with an enhanced experience that adds thrills and depth and visual sensations.
The scientific adventure that it represents may not seem so unusual today, but in 1947 it was daring, defiant and dangerous. This film is anxious to put Heyerdahl's achievement in context - both scientifically and personally. Hence there are scenes of Hayerdahl (Pål Sverre Hagen) with his lovely wife Liv (Agnes Kittelsen) in the Marquesas where he began to develop his theories about the way Polynesia was settled - not by Asians but Incas.
In a brief scene with the august but unimaginative and conservative committee of the National Geographical Society, we are shown his research-based theory to be summarily dismissed. (I can't help thinking he might have been deemed the equivalent of a 'denier', questioning the consensus view on the matter...)
The instructive value of the film is ever present, and it is indeed fascinating in many ways, not least the long voyage on the balsam wood raft across the Pacific. And while there are a few short moments which remind us of Pi's lonely ocean voyage - notably exotic marine life - there is a world of difference between the films. Kon-Tiki is not a fantasy or a parable but a historic record of a moment in time when man's understanding expanded with knowledge.
The raft craft itself is fascinating, a large but primitive construction with only a radio as a modern concession, plus an inflatable dinghy which gets used to give the cameraman a long shot of the craft from a distance, for their doco.
Kon-Tiki is technically superb and made chronologically to capture the verity of men growing beards and scars and deep tans when spending over 100 days at sea. A stow-away toucan, whales and sharks, luminous sea creatures and flying fish make brief appearances but the focus remains Heyerdahl's single minded determination to prove his theory.
Technical brilliance aside, the filmmakers also try to infuse the story with intimate details and the clash of personalities. By necessity, these are perfunctory elements and the physical ordeal becomes the primary engine of the drama. The film sets out to be a dramatised account of a major expedition and that's what it is.
All the same, there is a satisfying wrap-up in which we learn the private cost of Heyerdahl's determination to prove his theory, and a sense that we have witnessed something remarkable - albeit from the safety and comfort of our seat.
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CAST: Pål Sverre Haggen, Anders Baasmo Christiansen, Agnes Kittelsen, Gustaf Skarsgard, Jacob Oftebro
PRODUCER: Jeremy Thomas, Aage Aaberge
DIRECTOR: Joachim Roenning, Espen Sandbery
SCRIPT: Petter Skavlan
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Geir Hartly Andreassen
EDITOR: Per-Erik Eriksen
MUSIC: Johna Soderqvist
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Karl Juliousson
RUNNING TIME: 118 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Transmission
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: April 11, 2013