There was a time in the mid 20th when Europe cornered the market in batty anthropologists. Swiss fraudster Erich von Däniken theorised that the Incas came from space, or communed with those who did, and Norwegian Thor Heyerdahl theorised that they went from there to the Polynesian Islands on balsawood rafts, accounting more plausibly for their human habitation than did progressive migration from south East Asia, as the prevailing theory had it. It may have been a stretch to imagine a 5,000 mile journey on a balsa wood raft, conceded Heyerdahl to those from whom he sought funding, but they did have the wind and the current with them.
Heyerdahl’s theory has fared rather better than von Däniken’s in the last half century, partly because Heyerdahl managed to prove his by repeating the journey (granted, it might have been for von Däniken to do the same thing). And that is what this film represents: a dramatisation of Heyerdahl’s westward voyage across the Pacific.
Directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg’s first challenge, then, is that there’s already a superior record of events out there: namely Heyerdahl’s own documentary, which won an academy award in 1951.
Those who want the real story already have what they need. A new dramatisation has to stand or fall as entertainment, therefore. To do that, usually, requires a bit of editorialising: large periods of a 101 day journey adrift on the ocean would pass without much but claustrophobic sniping and seawater in the biscuits to pass as drama. And so, one suspects, editorialising goes on: it may be the case that engineer Herman Watzinger fell off the raft, and it may have been true that a school of sharks conducted a feeding frenzy beneath it, but it is doubtful these things happened at the same time, considering Watzinger made it back to tell the tale.
Sharks of different shapes and sizes, some rendered in rather flat-footed CGI, frequently punctuate a narrative which otherwise would be a little stifling: six lithe Scandinavians quickly grow beards, sunstroke and lassitude whilst sitting on a small wooden platform.
Such a claustrophobic screenplay requires careful interpretation by the cast – but for the occasional shark all there is is their acting – and by and large we get it. Compared with his scenery chewing in In Order of Disappearance, Pål Sverre Valheim Hagen puts in a positively understated performance as Heyerdahl, and Christiansen, who is part of the scenery Hagen chews in In Order of Disappearance, turns in probably the best performance of the lot as the Watzinger, an overweight fridge salesman who escapes a miserable postwar experience in Brooklyn by hitching himself to Heyerdahl’s floating wagon (the real Watzinger was more of an athlete, having been a Norwegian sprint champion).
In its major strokes Heyerdahl’s story is a triumph, in its particulars it is a tragedy, and the directors counterpart Heyerdahl’s single-minded pursuit of his magnificent, uncompromising vision with a startling myopia concerning his own family whom he leaves to fester in Lillehammer as the adventure plays out.
I hope it won’t be considered a spoiler to reveal the Kon Tiki made it, catapulting Heyerdahl from crackpot to visionary, and once the equatorial current is caught, matters proceed swiftly to the raft’s arrival in the Tuamotu Islands. As the credits roll over a potted history of what the crew did next (the last man died in 2009), one does wonder what the particular appeal will be for this film right now, but that doesn’t stop it being an interesting enough night out at the movies.
Kon-Tiki is released in UK cinemas 19th December 2014.
Directors: Joachim Rønning, Espen Sandberg
Stars: Pål Sverre Hagen, Anders Baasmo Christiansen, Gustaf Skarsgård
Runtime: 118 min
Country: UK, Norway, Denmark, Germany, Sweden