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By Daniel Lammin
7th April 2013

In 1947, Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdhal undertook one of the most daring expeditions of the century - throwing himself and his team at the mercy of the Pacific Ocean on his specially-constructed raft, the Kon-Tiki. Heyerdhal believed that the Polynesian Islands had been populated 1500 years before by a tribe from South America, and could only prove it by undertaking the trip himself under the same conditions. The expedition made Heyerdhal a legend, recounting the events in his acclaimed book and accompanying Oscar-winning documentary ‘Kon-Tiki’ (1950). Over sixty years later, the journey has been recreated in this lavish dramatisation, the largest Norwegian production ever attempted, and now one of their most acclaimed films.

‘Kon-Tiki’ follows Heyerdhal (Pål Sverre Hagen) from the early days of his hypothesis whilst living on the Polynesian Islands, to his mounting the dangerous and seemingly impossible expedition. With a crew of five fellow scientists, mostly inexperienced at spending so long at sea, Heyerdhal constructs the Kon-Tiki as close as possible to how it would have been constructed in the Pre-Columbian era, and the team throw themselves at the mercy of the Pacific currents, hoping to prove Heyerdhal’s crazy theory to be true.

This expedition is practically begging for cinematic recreation, and directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg make a valiant, and often impressive, attempt at bringing the high drama and thrills of the expedition to the screen. ‘Kon-Tiki' excels in its production design, especially with the raft itself. Made from the most basic of resources, you can feel every groan and pop as it battles against the elements, and the pervading danger from what might be lurking underneath. Unfortunately, the rest of the film feels surprisingly lacking and strangely aimless. While it certainly picks up once the raft begins its journey, the preamble beforehand does little to build to that point, and the film makes unusual choices in what aspects of Heyerdhal’s life and pre-planning it chooses to offer. You get the sense that you’re just jumping from narrative marker to narrative marker, with the film more concerned with how the expedition came about rather than offering much in the way of character background and development on Heyerdhal himself. He is a strangely empty character, a caricature of the young upstart scientist rather than a developed and well-constructed figure we can identity with. By the time we hit the ocean, it feels like the film has been treading water until it can get to the part we're really interested in.


The filmmaking is relatively unremarkable - everything looks slick and Hollywood, but without the confidence to actually pull off that big-budget look. And that is certainly what they’re going for - ‘Kon-Tiki’ is clearly intended for a wider audience than most foreign films; no further proof necessary than the fact it was filmed in both English and Norwegian. What we get is the English version, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that accounts for a lot of the film's shortfallings. The cast and crew are clearly uncomfortable working outside of their native tongue, and the English screenplay is stilted and riddled with crippling clichés. The screen is wide and often filled to the brim, but cinematographer Geir Hartly Andreassen seems to think that lots and lots of zoom-ins make a film look more epic. The film also suffers, unfortunately, from following up Ang Lee’s masterful ‘Life of Pi’, offering almost note-for-note the same natural wonders and moments of tension and danger. It isn’t the special effects that let it down; you accept that ‘Kon-Tiki’ doesn’t have the same great tools to work with, but you can’t feel the same sense of wonder when you feel like you’ve seen it all before. This is more an unfortunate circumstance than a fault of the film, but only adds to the feeling that the balance of the film just isn’t right.

The cast is relatively dependable, especially the team of the ‘Kon-Tiki’, who fulfill all the basic stereotypes of a mismatched crew, but with a refreshing sense of integrity that makes them instantly likable. Strangely, without having spent as much screen time with them, the crew are almost easier to identity with than Heyerdhal himself. Pål Sverre Hagen does a good job as the explorer, but the screenplay doesn’t really offer much for him to do, and he ends up playing a single note for most of the film - that of steely determination bordering on mania. It makes sense, but it isn’t very interesting. The only other performance of note is Agnes Kittelsen as Heyerdhal’s wife Liv, who looks completely lost in the film and ends up leaving almost no impression whatsoever other than as something in Heyerdhal’s way.

The film makes its final misstep in its ending - an unexpected downer that it then refuses to deal with. It could be an attempt to further humanise Heyerdhal, but by that stage it’s too late, and only detracts from the success of the expedition. This ends up summarising the overall effect of the film perfectly: moments of brilliance supplanted by strange and unnecessary missteps. ‘Kon-Tiki’ was nominated for Best Foreign Film at this year's Oscars, but one suspects that the nomination had more to do with the source material and the documentary rather than the film itself. It’s a pity, because a great film is definitely in there, and maybe if we had been given the original Norwegian version, we might have seen it. In the end, though, ‘Kon-Tiki’ feels like yet another missed opportunity - a film that intends to aim high but doesn’t step up when asked to. It ticks all the boxes of a big-budget film, but forgets to throw any heart into the mix.

RELEASE DATE: 11/04/2013
RUN TIME: 1h 58m
CAST: Pâl Sverre Hagen
Agnes Kittelsen
Odd-Magnus Williamson
Tobias Santelmann
DIRECTORS: Joachim Ronning
Espen Sandberg
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