Kon-Tiki *** (out of five)
If you’re in need of a couple of bursts of all-over goosebumps, Kon-Tiki is your surest bet at the moment. This old-fashioned and beautifully shot adventure yarn, based on the truly incredible true story of Thor Heyerdal, Norway’s great adventurer hero, is a real rouser. In 1947, Heyerdal and five other men set out to prove that Peruvians were the first to discover Polynesia by building a balsa wood raft and sailing the currents from Lima until they reached the islands. Adventure ensued.
Norway’s most expensive (and successful) film, nominated for an Oscar this year for Best Foreign Language Film, Kon-Tiki takes a straightforward approach to its story, eschewing heavy analysis for sharks and whales. Like any person driven to undertakings that risk their own lives and those of others to prove a point, make a name for themselves, and satisfy their grandiose egos, Thor was obviously a complicated and strangely driven man, and a film could have been made that dealt with his personal psychology in a deep, and potentially dark, way; this is not that film. Kon-Tiki satisfies itself in that regard with one scene where Thor is challenged by one of his crew as perhaps being a little obsessed; other than that, it prefers to be a straightforward, story-based account of a man who is a Norwegian legend. It’s amazing his story hasn’t been properly told on film before.
As Thor, Pål Hagen is strappingly handsome (he strongly resembles the British actor Matthew Goode) and appropriately focused, without ever hinting at any particular turmoil of the soul. His five raft-mates are all excellently played and their ever-growing beards are rich and believable (the beard and tan continuity on this film must have been a serious challenge). Their interplay never approaches the antagonism of those onboard in The Perfect Storm; there are minor tiffs and tantrums but in general, they seemed to be a good bunch. They’re accompanied by a crab and a toucan, a typewriter and an 8mm camera; Thor’s book become a bestseller and his documentary won an Academy Award.
In what might be considered a very practical move or a colossal waste of time and energy (on what was already a pretty challenging film set), Kon-Tiki’s dialogue scenes were all shot twice, once being in English. I don’t know whether the actors were all hired on the condition they spoke English or whether some of them spoke phonetically; if you know the way the film was shot, you are unfortunately left feeling you’re getting the “cheaper version”: you can’t help but feel these actors all provided better takes in their native tongue. I personally can’t see why this choice was made, and a worldwide onslaught of box-office takings won’t convince me otherwise; people will see this film for the story, not for the fact that the actors speak English. (For that matter, I’m surprised that Australia, a country famously open to foreign-language films, is getting the English version, which can’t help but be considered the lesser cousin to the original language cut).
If you’ve recently seen Life of Pi you’re in for many similarities: when your story is almost entirely set on a small craft at sea, sharks and whales (as danger) and phosphorescence (as wonder) are par for the course. There was much more calamitous event in that movie; the Kon-Tiki (Thor’s raft) was, after all, gently riding currents for the most part, and didn’t have a tiger. But this is truth, not fiction, and, like all good pictures about true heroic voyages, be they to space, into the desert, or to the bottom of the sea, it’s intriguing, inspiring, and, yes, ultimately goose-bumpy. Very goose-bumpy. And there’s nothing wrong with that. See it on the big screen.