Kon-Tiki, the new fictionalized version of Thor Heyerdahl’s legendary jaunt across the Pacific, is a stunningly beautiful movie to watch (cinematography by Geir Hartly Andreassen), and not just the astonishing shots of Heyerdahl’s raft at sea that feel straight out of a National Geographic special. In the early scenes of Heyerdahl alone and overwhelmed by New York City, Andreassen films the place as a series of Edward Hopper paintings, a somewhat stylized view of the lonely Big Apple of the time.
But when it comes to the rest of the movie, well, it’s somewhat more of a mixed bag. The dialog, especially at the beginning, is at times clunky and expository, and the characters are sufficient unto the story, but not to much else. Pal Sverre Vlaheim Hagen, who plays Heyerdahl, is appropriately blond and Nordic and does what he does with the role. To its credit, the screenplay, by Petter Skavlan (with Allan Scott as script consultant), does do something interesting here by suggesting quite often that Heyerdahl is more interested in glory and fame than in making an important anthropological discovery. It not just makes him less sympathetic, but downright selfish and self-centered, which is an intriguing approach to take for a national hero. And in the end, Heyerdahl does get his glory. But he also gets a Dear John letter. You don’t feel sorry for him. You can’t. He built his raft, as they say, and he had to sail on it.
But then there’s that second act. That’s always the difficulty in movies like this in which the outcome is known (spoiler alert, they make it). How do you create suspense in a movie that is inherently suspenseless? But here the story gets a lot of help from the directors, Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg, as well as the writers. Wisely playing down character arcs and personal conflicts and interactions (which, with rare exceptions, usually stop movies like this dead), the directors and writers instead startle us with breathtaking scenes of a shark attack; a hauntingly graceful whale shark; iridescent fish; and a pod of whales leisurely swimming by, all of it topped off by that standard of standards, a terrifying storm. Whatever else it is, Kon-Tiki is an entertaining adventure story that will probably not disappoint.
However, there is one question I’ve always wondered about when it comes to Kon-Tiki. The premise is that years ago, natives of Peru sailed their way to Polynesia. Heyerdahl proved it could be done. But as far as I can tell, he’s never answered “why” they did it. Columbus was searching for India, but what in the world were the Peruvians thinking?
Note: Kon-Tiki is the Norwegian entry in the foreign language film category at the 2013 Oscars