As a young school child, I remember reading Thor Heyerdahl’s fantastic true adventure account of sailing on a balsa wood raft with 5 other crew members from Peru to Polynesia. Even though Heyerdahl’s crew made the voyage successfully with little trouble except for the logistics and sharks, it occurred to me that this would make a terrific movie. The themes: Man against nature and attempting the impossible and succeeding. Heyerdahl’s award-winning 1950 documentary of the voyage proved to be fascinating cinema, so there is no shortage of available comparisons to the 2013 color movie version of “Kon-Tiki,” directed by Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg.
As the 2013 Kon-Tiki opens, Thor’s a small boy in Norway. He falls off an ice flow into a freezing lake while trying to impress his school chums. While convalescing, the unrepentant Thor refuses to promise his father that he won’t do something so dangerous again. With this scenes, the film sets up Thor Heyerdahl as an ultimate risk taker.
The film flashes ahead several decades to Polynesia, where Thor takes a working holiday with his wife Liv (Agnes Kittelsen). Thor (Pål Sverre Hagen) learns about a Polynesian god named Kon-Tiki, who came from the other side of the ocean to found the island and the people. Thor notices both that Kon-Tiki is a name for the Inca sun god, and that both Polynesia and Peru grow pineapples. From that, he infers that Polynesian settlers arrived from Peru — not Asia as believed by anthropologists of the day.
Heyerdahl writes a book about his theories, but scoff reigns on him from other scientists and even the National Geographic Society (NGS). He wants to sail a raft from Peru to Polynesia, but the NGS won’t fund it. When private sources come through for the voyage, Thor rounds up a crew but the movie doesn’t spend much time defining them for the audience. Thor quickly says goodbye to his wife Liv, who is dead-set against the trip, and heads to Peru. They finally take off, and the hazards of the voyage and Thor’s leadership become the primary focus of the film.
Two main problems befall the six-man crew during the voyage of the Kon-Tiki: Lots of sharks threaten them and the boat keeps drifting towards the Galapagos Islands; if they get too close, a maelstrom near the islands will swallow them up. The filmmakers plant an unpredictable character (Herman) as the ship’s engineer (a vacuum cleaner salesman in his real job), who stirs up emotions that make the trip more difficult. This didn’t happen on the real voyage, but the viewer can easily pardon them for the dramatic effect.
The 2013 version of Kon-Tiki achieves it aim beautifully with a colorful wide-screen epic effect that wastes little time on the biographical elements and concentrates on the story of the voyage. Cameras swoop high above the Kon-Tiki to outer space, emphasizing its minuteness in a vast ocean. The cameras also effectively take us underwater to give us a feeling of what the crew faces with each methodical nautical mile. Of course, the filmmakers use CGI to heighten the effect, but I still felt I went along for the ride.