The famous trans-Pacific voyage undertaken in 1947 by Thor Heyerdahl, the adventurous Norwegian ethnologist, to buttress his unconventional notion that Polynesia had been populated not from Asia but the Americas is dramatized with visual dexterity but emotional vapidity in Joachim Roenning and Espen Sandberg’s “Kon-Tiki.”
The picture is titled, of course, after the balsa-wood raft on which Heyerdahl and five companions sailed some 5000 miles from the coast of Peru to Raroia Atoll over the course of 101 days—the vessel itself named after an Incan sun-god who supposedly vanished sailing into the ocean (according to Heyerdahl, of course, winding up in Polynesia). The explorer famously told the story in a book that was one of the surprise best-sellers of the late forties, and it was repeated in the Oscar-winning 1950 documentary that added to his fame.
The yarn would seem to be the stuff of engrossing drama. That it isn’t here is really the fault of Petter Skavlan, who feels it necessary to invent incident and conflict, to little effect, while shortchanging the actual record, and who—together with star Pal Sverre Hagen—fashions a portrait of Heyerdahl that depicts him as something more like a cult leader than a charismatic adventurer. Whenever the cinematic Heyerdahl is confronted by difficulty, his answer is always merely “have faith”—and he seems positively certain that he knows exactly how “Tiki” made the voyage fifteen hundred years ago and obsessed about following his lead. (The smile that Hagen affects in each case, unfortunately, seems more creepy than reassuring.)
After the perfunctory material that shows Heyerdahl failing to secure support for his project from prestigious outfits like the National Geographic Society, he’s shown easily winning over the Peruvian president, who snaps his fingers to enlist help from the US Navy, turning the entire planning of the expedition into a simpleminded tale of the victory of sheer eagerness over grumpy pedantry. That’s of a piece with Heyerdahl’s accidental meeting with Herman Watzinger (Anders Baasmo Christiansen), presented as a bumbling, overweight refrigerator salesman who begs to go along despite his lack of expertise. In fact, Watzinger was a well-respected scientist whose abilities are really underplayed here for supposed dramatic effect. The portrayal of him on the raft as a loose cannon who goes bonkers at moments of stress seems especially unfair—especially since Heyerdahl’s own account emphasizes how professional and controlled the crew (Including Watzinger) was throughout the experience. The reality of the enterprise was certainly sufficient to make such spurious dressing-up of the facts unnecessary.
Making matters worse is the fact that apart from Heyerdahl and Watzinger, the film fails to apply much effort to characterizing the remaining four crew members. Yes, one is a taciturn cameraman, another a fellow overcoming his fears from a previous crisis, and the others radio operators who occasionally butt heads. But we never get to know them as individuals; they obstinately remain props in a sort of grown-up version of a boys’ adventure tale (an effect exacerbated by an early scene in which Thor, as a boy, takes a risk on the Norwegian ice that nearly costs him his life—with his childhood pals just a bunch of happy or concerned faces, surrounding him too).
That said, “Kon-Tiki” is a nice-looking film, with luminous cinematography by Geir Hartly Andreassen and expert period detail in the scenes on land. The effects are by and large good enough, though the sharks that play a major role in some scenes aren’t much of an advance on Bruce of “Jaws” fame.
The film skirts entirely the persuasiveness of Heyerdahl’s hypothesis about the populating of Polynesia, preferring to stick to the simplistic notion that his voyage somehow proved it—though that’s hardly the case. (After all, demonstrating that such a journey could have been made isn’t the same thing as proving it was.) In a way that’s too bad, since the scientific dispute is an interesting and revealing one. On the other hand, covering it would have extended an already overlong film still further (or worse, invited a sequel). And as it is, most travelers will be happy to disembark when the credits roll.