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KON-TIKI – Review

December 19, 2014

Film + Entertainment | by James Joseph


Torstein-and-Knut-Fishing

Kon-Tiki tells the true life story of adventurer Thor Heyerdahl, who in 1947 led an epic 4,000 mile voyage across the Pacific. In a bid to prove his theory that Polynesia was settled by tribes from South America correct, he assembles a small crew and a raft constructed only of materials that would have been available to such tribes. While most people, his wife included, think Thor is crazy for attempting such a feat (not least because he can’t swim) his sense of adventure and discovery pushes him forward. But the journey will be a dangerous one, and the crew will have to overcome vicious storms, shark attacks and cabin fever in order to make history.

An old fashioned and warm-hearted biopic, Kon-Tiki is an adventure movie in the classic Hollywood style. Heyerdahl as played by Norwegian actor Pal Sverre Valheim Hagen (who bears such a striking resemblance to Ryan Gosling you will probably double take during a lot of scenes), is depicted as a charming and charismatic figure, but also rather naive and headstrong.

It seems part of his reason for undertaking this quest to prove all his naysayers wrong, and is even willing to risk his marriage to achieve his goal. But Hagen brings a real likability to the role, and it’s easy to root for this dreamer. If the movie had been made in 1950’s Hollywood it would be easy to see somebody like James Stewart in the part.

Characterization is a problem elsewhere though. The background of most of the supporting characters isn’t explored in any great detail, and no insight is given to why they would undertake such a risky trip. In fact in the early part of the voyage some of the supporting players are so ill-defined it’s easy to get them confused. This problem eases as the story progresses but it’s a note-worthy problem.

The film has been the subject of some controversy over its depiction of certain events. The writers have stated that the real voyage of the Kon-Tiki almost went too well, so they felt it necessary to inject additional drama. This includes adding some interpersonal conflicts and depicting Herman Watzinger, the second-in-command, as a nervous, pudgy figure who constantly worries about the trip. This is in contrast to the real life Watzinger, who was described as a tall, handsome man who had complete confidence in the journey.

Visually Kon-Tiki is handsomely crafted and rich in period detail, with an impressive recreation of 1940’s New York. It also contains a number of captivating images, such an enormous whale gliding under the tiny raft. The raft section of the story also calls to mind Jaws, as the men are isolated on a small vessel and at mercy of the elements. The filmmakers actually shot most of the action in open water instead of in a tank, which adds to the slightly queasy effect of these scenes.

Thor-and-Liv-At-Waterfall

There are some tense setpieces, with the standout being a knuckle biting shark attack in the second half. The crew’s fragile, deteriorating raft is swarmed by a group of great whites attracted by the blood of a dead animal, and the directors milk every ounce of suspense they can. But this sequence aside there is a curious lack of tension, as even if the audience is unfamiliar with the outcome of the story, it never feels like the characters are truly in danger. The movie also leans too heavily on its swelling score, which seems to overpower an emotional scene instead of supporting it.

While Kon-Tiki is certainly not one of the strongest biopics of all time, it still tells a fascinating story of true life adventure and bravery with skill and heart. The earnestness of the characters and the storytelling may not be to the taste of some, but the film is a worthy tribute to its real life counterparts.

Kon-Tiki is released in UK cinemas on December 19th

Padraig Cotter