In 1947, the Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl crossed the Pacific ocean in a balsa wood raft, together with five men, to prove that it was possible for South Americans to settle in Polynesia in pre-Columbian times.
a fun, if undemanding watch
Nations, especially overlooked ones, love their national myths, and expend considerable resources—of money, of labour—to see those stories bought to the screen. Lavishly mounted, triumphalist in tone, and comfortably middlebrow in aesthetic, this is filmmaking as a social exercise: conceived and executed in order to bring as many citizens to the cinema as possible. While, of course, waving the flag to (typically disinterested) international audiences.
Directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg have particular form, in this respect: their previous feature, 2008’s Max Manus: Man of War—a biopic of a renowned Norwegian WWII resistance fighter—was a massive box-office hit in its home territory, its Oslo premiere attended by no less than the King of Norway himself. Who, unsurprisingly, expressed his approval.
For this follow-up, they’ve delivered another tale of Nordic heroism, occurring just a few years later: explorer Thor Heyerdahl’s 1947 voyage, in a self-made raft, across the Pacific Ocean from South America to the Tuamotus Islands in French Polynesia.
An ethnographer and anthropologist, Heyerdahl had a theory: that the islands were settled 1500 years earlier, not by emigrant Asians (as was commonly accepted at the time), but instead, by natives from South America, who had crossed the ocean on rafts from the east. To prove this, however, he must make the journey himself, on a similarly primitive craft.
He must also abandon his wife and children—and while flashbacks establish that the couple previously shared a life as explorers, Heyerdahl’s willingness to subordinate every other aspect of his life to this mission, in fact says less about his personality (though star Pal Sverre Hagen certainly plays him as a semi-mystic—his piercing blue eyes and gaunt, fanatic’s frame reminiscent of Peter O’Toole’s Lawrence of Arabia), than about the simple lack of care taken with characterisations here.
Heyerdahl is accompanied on his mission by five other men, yet with one notable exception, they’re barely differentiated. But then, characterisation, here, runs a very distant second to the kinetic thrill of successive set-pieces. Some of which are thrilling—a storm at sea, in particular, is terrifyingly well-rendered—but prove no substitute for the richer complexities of human psychology.
All of which only makes the few gestures in that direction—and the dramatic licences taken, in this respect—all the more inexplicable. One of the film’s major strands involves the bickering and rivalries that beset the Kon-Tiki’s crew, at sea for almost 100 days. In fact, the mission was a model of harmony, with everyone behaving at their most . . . well, Scandinavian. I was unsurprised to read later that the family of crew member Herman Watzinger—here depicted as an overweight, panic-stricken buffoon—have complained bitterly to the filmmakers regarding his portrayal.
Considering that, according to Heyerdahl’s own best-selling account of the expedition, Watzinger—a member of Norway’s elite Royal Guard—was actually confident, efficient and even handsome, it’s not hard to see their point. What is harder to understand is why screenwriter Petter Skavlan felt compelled to make the change.
Ironically, for a story which is about basic, hand-made, often jerry-rigged solutions, the result is as slick and industrial as any Hollywood blockbuster—right down to Johan Söderqvist’s melodramatic score. Children of the 1980s, Rønning and Sandberg clearly worshipped early and often at the temple of Spielberg and bring a similarly refined technical eye to proceedings. Given that their field of action is so limited—the majority of the film takes place on the raft—the pair manage to find some extraordinarily inventive ways to cover the space.
They also display a refreshing reluctance to over-edit: watching, we have a consistent sense of the size of the craft, the position of the men upon it, and the immensity of the ocean upon which they’re afloat. All of which amplifies the tension considerably.
In the end, it’s a fun, if undemanding watch, so slickly made (and particular credit, in this respect, must go to Geir Hartly Andreassen’s plein air cinematography) as to almost forbid any deeper emotional attachment. For all its rousing, high-seas adventure, and despite the rugged individualism of the man it celebrates, it feels earnest, worthy, and more than a tad self-important. For a film about casting off into the unknown, and seeing what one finds there, it never quite manages to shake its own innate, perhaps national conservatism.