Romantic adventure and visual feast
Kon-Tiki. The name itself conjures the romance of an exotic place reached by a transformative journey, due to the fact that it is forever fused with the explorer Thor Heyerdahl through his expedition, book and Academy Award-winning documentary (1951), all of the same name.
A second iteration of Kon-Tiki was released in 2012. It is not a remake, nor a documentary. It is instead a romantic travel adventure that became Norway’s highest grossing film for the year, nominated for an Academy Award. But, how does it translate to an American audience with little or no knowledge of Heyerdahl? Does it deliver?
In many ways it is a romance, a billet-doux to the journey, the adventure, the stubborn, sometimes reckless spirit of man—in this case Heyerdahl, and by extension, the Norwegian lineage of explorers, tracing back to the Vikings, and, more recently, Fridtjof Nansen and Roald Amundsen. It is not a romance between people but that part of the soul with a burning need to discover and experience the unknown.
The catalyst behind Heyerdahl’s entire expedition was his drive to prove that South Americans first populated Polynesia. One obstacle: how could a boatless people have achieved this? Solution: they had rafts that could have caught the Humboldt Current. Heyerdahl’s theory evolved from the time he spent in Fatu Hiva (Polynesia), prior to W WII, during an 18-month stay. There he noted connections between the two cultures: through their myths, statuary and flora, specifically the pineapple.
The film’s cinematography by Geir Hartly Andreassen is luxurious. The lush images of verdant Fatu Hiva juxtaposed against the earlier visuals of the blue-black Norwegian winter are brilliant. There is a moving panorama, as if the best shots only found in high-end travel magazines, have come to life, like National Geographic images on steroids. A visual feast for the eye, Kon-Tiki is also a travel film.
One delightful scene is a celebratory Peruvian sendoff of the crew by the compressed local population. They are bedecked in post-war attire cheek-to-jowl with those in traditional Andean clothing, the later playing panpipes. Another scene depicts two figures couched in inky black as they examine a lit Manhattan skyline from a Brooklyn roof.
But, above all, Kon-Tiki is an adventure film that recreates the exciting 1947 experience, where Heyerdahl is the captain, yet one of the crew. In turn, it offers a encompassing perspective, often effective in pulling in the audience. From calm, to tragedy, to wonder, we become part of the crew on this journey.
Some scenes do this wonderfully. For example, a lulling calm, quickly turns to a slashing storm; flashing lightning serves as a strobe—disorienting. To avoid spilling overboard, the crew is forced to tie themselves to the raft. The shots are jarring, as if the camera is being tossed upon the deck. One can feel the terror.
Or there is bioluminescent glow of squid—beckoning. The crew’s faces are lit in turquoise—awe. In another scene, the small vessel is cloaked in an immense shadow created by a visiting whale gliding under this vulnerable craft—sublime. Your pulse races when the leviathan starts heading toward the raft. A panicked crewmember harpoons the creature, and you expect to be taken on a Nantucket sleigh ride, but instead a man is pulled overboard entangled in a rope, like a noose around his ankle.
Then there is the scene with the crew lying on the deck together with their faces to the sky, their heads in a circle, adrift in the vast ocean as they watch the enormous illuminated sky—ethereal.
The film’s score, composed by Johan Söderqvist, beautifully enhances this visual feast, coaxing the audience’s emotional temperament specific to each scene. Whether heightened tension or serene calm, we are drawn in by the music.
Some problems include choppy cuts between glimpses of Heyerdahl’s early life. And oddly, in some instances, fiction invades fact. One of the main characters, Herman, a refrigerator salesman and engineer on the expedition, never existed. Film critic Andrew Barker commented: “It’s frustratingly ironic that Kon-Tiki’s most outrageously fantastical sequences are completely verifiable, and its most predictable, workaday conflicts are completely made up.”
But, on balance, the film is definitely worth seeing for what it is: a romantic travel adventure that will certainly pique a new generation’s interest in Heyerdahl’s work, Norwegian exploration, and the human spirit’s unquenchable thirst for discovery and connection.
The film Kon-Tiki, starring Pål Sverre Hagen and Agnes Kittelsen, is available to American audiences in the English language on Netflix and on Amazon. Targeting international audiences, the film was shot simultaneously in Norwegian and English, with each scene being filmed twice, first in Norwegian and then in English.
This article originally appeared in the April 17, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.