Sunday, October 5, 2014

Kon-Tiki (2012)

Director: Joachim Rønning                              Writer: Petter Skavlan
Film Score: Johan Söderqvist                          Cinematography: Geir Hartly Andreassen
Starring: Pål Sverre Hagen, Anders Christiansen, Tobias Santellman and Gustaf Skarsgård

One of my vivid memories from childhood was watching the exploits of the Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl on the National Geographic specials that were so much a part of the seventies. Heyerdahl singlehandedly proved that ocean voyages could have been made by peoples in pre-Columbian times and radically altered the assumptions about the ethnic makeup of native populations in South America and the Pacific Islands. Of course, in those days he was proving the ability of Africans to cross the Atlantic to South America in boats made of papyrus reeds. But twenty years earlier he had done the same thing in the Pacific, his first voyage captured in the film Kon-Tiki, in a raft made out of balsa wood to prove that South Americans had traveled across the ocean to the Pacific Islands. Appropriately enough for a national icon, this is a Norwegian production. As the most expensive national production ever undertaken, a decision was made to shoot the film both in Norwegian and English in order to ensure a more lucrative international run than a subtitled film was likely to achieve. I watched the English version, but in looking at the Norwegian version there is almost nothing to choose from.

The film opens with Heyerdahl as a child, jumping out onto blocks of ice being cut and falling into the icy water. He is pulled out and told to never take chances like that again. The scene then cuts to him years later with his wife on the island of Fatu Hiva in the South Pacific. Like all scientists of the time, he originally believed that the Polynesian islands had been initially populated by Asians. But after spending years studying the people and writing about them he gradually became convinced that people from South America were the first to reach the islands. After failing to interest a publisher in his work, he was joking told that the only thing that would prove his theory is to actually build a raft and drift all the way from Peru to Polynesia. Joining Pål Sverre Hagen as Heyerdahl are five other men, including Anders Baasmo Christiansen as an engineer looking for adventure in his life, Tobias Santellman as an ex-military man and the only one aboard with sailing experience, and Gustaf Skarsgård as a Swedish photographer who wants to document the voyage.

Though it is a fascinating film in terms of the danger involved, since the men were out on the ocean alone with no support boat trailing them, the film is not without its flaws. The biggest one is not having access to the thoughts of Hagen as Heyerdahl. And there was plenty of space to do this as he kept records of the entire journey and there were several scenes with him at his typewriter. Some voiceover would have been a nice way to heighten the suspense of the journey and allow the audience to become a bit more emotionally invested in the characters. Still, it remains a compelling drama. Even the early scenes with Hagen and Agnes Kittelsen as his wife on the island of Fatu Hiva are nicely done, especially as he accumulates evidence for a new theory of how the islands were populated. The scenes on the ocean were filmed in open water and are breathtaking at times, especially when other forms of life like sharks and whales appear. Liberties were taken with the actual events, which to my mind should never been an issue with historical dramas, as feature films are still a fictional medium despite the source material. Nominated for an Academy Award for best foreign language film, Kon-Tiki is a fitting tribute to a true twentieth-century explorer and a Norwegian hero.

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