★★ / ★★★★
After being immersed and having studied the Polynesian culture for a decade, Thor Heyerdahl (Pål Sverre Hagen) goes to New York City and proposes that, despite popular belief that Polynesia was populated by Asia, it was in fact the Peruvians who got there first. Needless to say, his thesis is scorned by high scholars. In order to prove his theory, he, along with five other men, plans to sail from Peru to the Polynesian islands on a balsa wood raft. There is no engine to propel them in the right direction—because people from over a thousand years ago did not have them—just the current and the wind.
For a movie about a grand expedition involving five thousand miles of sea, “Kon-Tiki,” directed by Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg, is exciting only in patches. When sharks and other creatures of the deep are not in the frame, there is a sense that we are watching performers acting as opposed to completely soaking us in the mindset that just about anything can go wrong on this voyage and claim everyone’s lives.
Perhaps it has something to do with the language being in English instead of Norwegian. Notice that the dialogue amongst the men on the raft do not usually last more than ten seconds. It were as if they were giving one another soundbites when it comes to whatever is going on in their minds and once they are expressed it is simply onto the next scene. It diminishes an adventure that should be detailed, intense, scary, dangerous.
In addition, because the men do not get a chance to really talk to one another, a strong connection is not established between them and us. In particular, it was a struggle for me to match names to their faces and so I used superficial landmarks. I remembered the engineer, Herman (Anders Baasmo Christiansen), because he carries extra weight compared to the others and the man in charge of the radio, Torstein (Jakob Oftebro), because his hair is consistently magazine-ready. The others pretty much fade into the background.
Some of the visuals demand attention. I held my breath as a massive whale swims toward and underneath the raft. The way the scene is edited is sharp and efficient. While the sight commands an air of majesty, there is a whiff of danger—a lingering thought that the whale might get a little too playful and threaten the people on board. Furthermore, the scenes involving the hungry sharks are horrifying. They have to be seen to be believed.
But the movie should not just be about stunning visuals. Essentially, it is about a man so determined to prove everyone wrong that he is willing to die in the process. We get some glimpses of the darkness in Heyerdahl, especially during the scene that depicts one of the men begging him to use modern tools to increase their chance of survival, but the screenplay by Petter Skavlan does not provide a fulfilling picture of him as a man of science, research, and adventure. As for his personal life, we get two or three scenes of he and his wife (Agnes Kittelsen) talking via telephone and sounding very solemn.