Kon-Tiki (2012) – Joachim Rønning, Espen Sandberg

A man walks into the stuffy office of a pompous scientist. He wants a grant to publish his theory that Polynesia wasn’t, in fact, settled by Asians but by ancient Peruvians.

“I know you think the Incan civilization was remarkable,” the wizened but dubious scientist says. “So do I, but the fact of the matter is the Incans didn’t have ships.”

“No,” the man says. “But they had rafts.”

The bearded scientist exhales percussively in what he might consider a boisterous laugh. “Alright. If you sail from Peru to Polynesia in a raft, perhaps I’ll believe you,” he says with sarcasm in his voice.

“Maybe I will,” the man says.

The man is legendary Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl (Pål Sverre Valheim Hagen) and that challenge is the setup of Kon-Tiki (2012), an adventure film that chronicles the real-life journey in 1947 of a man who really wanted to prove that those Incans discovered Polynesia, using pre-Columbian means to cross the 5,000 miles of the Pacific ocean.

It’s a good yarn and is splendidly told by directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg, who show a man so possessed by the quest of knowledge that he will risk his life to prove something that, in all practicality, won’t change much. Polynesia is already settled; it makes no difference now where those settlers came from (and Heyerdahl’s theory, even after his successful journey, has not definitively closed the subject). But Heyerdahl represents the type of dogged scientific mind that, if not for those like it, we would still believe the Earth is flat. His if-they-could-do-it-I-can-do-it enthusiasm reminded me of a filmmaker, Werner Herzog, who made a movie called Fitzcarraldo (1982) about a 19th-century man who dragged a steamer over a stretch of land from one vein of the Amazon to another, and when Herzog set out to film it decided to re-create it completely, using 1800s tools and processes to drag a real ship across the same stretch of land because why not? I believe Rønning and Sandberg took a more traditional approach in their production but a similar approach in their admiration for their subject.

We don’t get a lot of insight into what drives Heyerdahl in Kon-Tiki (the movie suggests he’s always been reckless, showing him as a child wondering stupidly after something on a thinly frozen lake) except that the scientific community thinks his theories are hogwash and he strives to prove them wrong. The script and Valheim Hagen present a man who is perfectly confident when discussing his work but awkward when discussing anything else. There’s a funny moment when Heyerdahl is granted an audience with the Peruvian government to ask for funding and he keeps greeting each lavishly dressed person as “Your excellency” only to discover they are simple functionaries. Eventually, he asks a modestly dressed man for a glass of water who, naturally, turns out to be the Peruvian premier. What we do get is an exciting and technically solid story once Heyerdahl organizes five Norwegian sailors to construct and sail the balsa wood raft, the Kon-Tiki, named after an Incan sun god.

The trip is besot by dangers (sharks mostly) and remarkable beauty and had some of the awesomeness of Pi’s nautical adventure in Life of Pi (2012) in which the full spectrum of the ocean’s power reveals itself. However, the breathtaking sight of glowing fish can sustain a person only so long and soon the rest of the crew becomes disheartened by the isolation (the trip opens with a great shot of the all-encompassing water around the craft, which gives a sobering introduction to how alone the Kon-Tiki is), and they grow frustrated by the insistence of using ancient means to make a journey that is difficult enough using modern equipmentbut Heyerdahl never falters (there’s a moment when he sends a cable back to civilization when he mentions that morale is high and a few crew members give him an incredulous look). Heyerdahl betrays one moment of doubt: As the raft is leaving the Peruvian port, there is a brief moment on Heyerdahl’s face of “What in thunder am I doing? This is insane.” But he buries this incertitude for the remainder of the trip.

This is a standard adventure story with a number of good setpieces. The best is a harrowing tussle with a shark, one that had eaten the parrot of one of the crew members. The sailor, angered at the loss of his pet, bludgeons the eventually captured fish with a rock, spilling its blood through the logs of the raft, causing a frenzy among the company of sharks below (this adventure ends on a confusing note, as a crew member falls into the water, is attacked to what we assume must be his death, yet is rescued with nary a scratch). Beyond the routine swashbuckling stuff, the filmmakers are able to provide some lovely images. I enjoyed Heyerdahl’s affinity for a crab that stowed away on the Kon-Tiki, and I was particularly tickled by a sequence when the crew, nearing the conclusion of their 5,000mile journey by balsa wood raft, takes out their passports as if they are about to step off a 747. There’s also a neat meta-element as Heyerdahl takes film footage of the journeywith a handheld camera, footage that would turn into an Oscar-winning documentary in 1951, the only Oscar the country of Norway has ever won (Kon-Tiki is nominated in 2012 for Best Foreign Film to try to add to Norway’s trophy case).

Kon-Tiki has a good story and tells it well, but its message is about the need for human scientific exploration in general, even if it’s at the service of folly (or as Herzog called himself in relation to FItzcarraldo, being a “conquistador of the useless”). As the Kon-Tiki nears its destination, Rønning and Sandberg pause for a moment to have their camera crane to the skies and lift out of the atmosphere and into the heavens, pausing briefly on the moon before heading back to Earth. The message is clear: Heyerdahl is cut from the same cloth as Columbus or Magellan before him and Neil Armstrong after himthose who refuse to except the limits of their world. 

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