Review by Joshua Handler
Kon-Tiki Movie Poster
When making a film from a story like that of Thor Heyerdahl’s (captain of the Kon-Tiki expedition), it is especially hard to make it narratively experimental or stylistically daring. There are few ways, if any, around it. Realizing this, directors Joaquim Rønning and Espen Sandberg made what is essentially a small epic in the tradition of ‘50s Hollywood adventure pictures with modern day special effects. By realizing the potential of the old Hollywood formula, Rønning and Sandberg made a thrilling film about one of the most daring true-life adventures of the 20th Century.
Kon-Tiki revolves around Thor Heyerdahl, a man who wanted to prove the Polynesians were descended from Peru by sailing the 5,000 miles between Peru and Polynesia by raft. And sail he did with five other men.
It was a true pleasure to see this film courtesy of Professor Richard Brown and his Movies 101 course. Professor Brown gives short, but extremely informative lectures before the films and some closing remarks after the film. According to Brown, Kon-Tiki, upon request from a producer of the film, was shot in Norwegian and English (I saw the English version). Upon filming in English and adapting the dialogue to fit the flow of the film, the filmmakers and actors realized that they learned a lot about the story and characters from the English, prompting them to shoot the film AGAIN in Norwegian. So, this film was essentially shot three times. Professor Brown also discussed how Heyerdahl wrote a best-selling book and made an Oscar-winning documentary about the Kon-Tiki voyage.
Kon-Tiki starts off before the expedition and continues through the end of the expedition. The main portion of the film takes place while the crew is on the raft. While this film could have been too conventional due to its structure, it is saved by a multitude of things, one of which is the powerhouse lead performance by Pål Sverre Hagen. As Heyerdahl, he is immensely likable and relatable, yet also fiercely determined. Hagen is our guide through this insane trip and never once does he let us down. This man was born to lead. Also impressive is that Hagen performed this film in a non-native tongue and pulled it off. I have not seen the Norwegian version of Kon-Tiki, so I have nothing to compare this version to, but I will say that the fact that Hagen pulled off a leading performance in two languages is incredible. I would love to see the Norwegian version to see him acting in his native language. The supporting cast all do wonders with their supporting characters, however big or small.
Rønning and Sandberg’s direction is top-notch. Throughout the film, they keep tensions high and use the spectacular CGI to full effect. Much of the film takes place on the ocean and many sequences’ visuals had to have been achieved through green screen. The green screen and CGI for Kon-Tiki were so flawlessly integrated with the actors and sets that I never once thought that what I was watching was artificial. In many films, it is easy to tell when something is green-screened or CGI because either the object in question just doesn’t look quite right or there is a small halo surrounding an actor’s head if the green screen isn’t done well. On this aspect of the film, Rønning and Sandberg completely succeeded. It helps that every shot is masterfully framed and richly colored. As a side note, the score is gorgeous.
Many will complain that Kon-Tiki’s narrative structure is too traditional, as mentioned above. While it is traditional, it fits the material well and allows the directors to create a really wild adventure. Due to the conventions used, the directors are able to wring every bit of suspense they can out of a given situation, even though everyone presumably knows the outcome of the expedition. They use outstanding camerawork and editing to elicit maximum tension and suspense out of a scene. I do not understand why someone would have a problem with the story being conventionally told. If everything were radically different narratively, that would become old. While I am not arguing for every film to have a conventional narrative, I would like for people to just allow themselves to sit back, relax, and enjoy an old-fashioned piece of entertainment for what it is every once in a while. A film like Kon-Tiki has everything it needs to be a satisfying motion picture.
Overall, Kon-Tiki is a magnificent re-telling of Thor Heyerdahl’s expedition on the Kon-Tiki. It will please audiences of all ages and educate them on a really fascinating piece of history that is rarely taught in American schools.