'Kon-Tiki' a Gorgeous, Imitative Seafaring Battle With History

Directed by: Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg; Runtime: 119 minutes
Grade: B

The story of Thor Heyerdahl's 5,000-mile expedition across the open seas on a wooden raft has already been visualized by a trustworthy source: himself, in his Oscar-nominated documentary from the late-'40s. It's often hard to believe as his journey with five other men progresses through stages of exhaustion and physical triumph, ranging from encounters with wildlife to the hopeful reliance on antiquated materials. Norway's Kon-Tiki strives to retrace Heyerdahl's course through a rousing docu-drama about the endurance of the human spirit and the pursuit of truth in the face of naysayers, while staying close to an accurate portrayal of his "experiment" in disproving common conceptions about the settlement of Polynesia. Co-directors Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg succeed in conjuring the windswept high-seas journey leading to Heyerdahl's destination, from the gathering of his crewmen and funding to how they weathered the elements, and it's replicated in an admirably picturesque and inspirational fashion.

Working from two different sources, the original documentary and Heyerdahl's eponymous autobiographical book, directors Ronning and Sandberg have the reference points they'd need to authentically present his 1947 expedition from Peru to Polynesia. The film traces his gallant pursuit as he struggles to gain funding in order to justify a decade of research, which centers on the idea that South Americans settled Polynesia instead of Asian explorers. When his research gets rejected by publishers on the grounds that the cross-ocean journey seems impossible without a proper boat, Heyerdahl gathers together the funding and a range of five brave souls -- soldiers, scientists, and engineers -- to prove them wrong by replicating the Peruvian's methods almost point-for point. Thus begins a 100-day excursion on the open waters in a balsawood raft, where the only remnants of modern tech are a camera to capture the events and a radio to communicate with the press.

Honestly, I found the first act of Kon-Tiki -- Heyerdahl's intellectual determination against naysayers and his difficultly in procuring funds -- more enriching than the heroic reenactment of the expedition itself. Troubled Water's Pal Sverre Hagen lends confidence and profound intensity to a researcher dedicated to justifying his unconventional theory, which also informs his shaky relationship with his wife, Liv (Agnes Kittelsen), who had been with him every step of the way up until this point. Watching him hit ideological walls against publishers and sailors revealed an earnest, obsessive confidence in his own theories and research, and the points where he finally finds the people willing to take a leap of faith with him, namely the completely unqualified engineer/fridge salesman Herman Watzinger, possess their own inspiring tones. Even before he departs on the Kon-Tiki raft without the ability to swim or steer the vessel, Heyerdahl's devotion to the success of archaic methods becomes a commanding force.

The journey itself across the 5,000-mile stretch of ocean becomes an expectedly breathtaking absorption of nature's scope, conveyed almost like a matter-of-fact fusion of Life of Piand Moby Dick through tests of endurance, fixation, and eminent fear of failure on the high seas. Several of the encounters that the crew endure are hard to believe, namely when they rub elbows with wildlife (sharks!), but much of the telling surprisingly comes directly from Heyerdahl's recounts -- with some artistic licenses taken for the sake of cinematic drama, some which work and others that don't. Majestic, grounded cinematography from Geir Hartly Andreassen captures the unease and beauty amid the baking sun and crystal-clear waves, opting to shoot most of the seafaring scenes on-location for heightened authenticity, while computer-generated effects expertly weave wildlife into the shots. Especially for this not being a shark-attack thriller, the sequences involving several of the predators weaving through the Pacific around the raft are some of the most stunning, tightly-executed depictions I've come across.

Kon-Tiki's conventional beauty and edifice also become a encumbrance, in a way, as every push forward in the voyage -- the bickering over their navigation issues, the collisions with weather, the heroic sacrifices -- appears much as they have in other seafaring adventures, biographical and accurate or not. There's a degree of suspense as the balsawood raft succumbs to the elements, along with its passengers, yet the knowledge of what happens to Heyerdahl limits the versatility of the film's expectation levels. What remains in Ronning and Sandberg's docu-drama is the tension created by how the expedition's leader will cajole his skeleton crew of familiar character types when their faith wanes, the way he'll convince them that they can triumph over the elements like the Peruvians once did themselves. As a result, this depiction arrives at a triumphantly bittersweet conclusion that conveys more of an intellectual conquest than an emotional one, the exhale of relief dependant on Heyerdahl's theory more than man's triumph over nature and himself.

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