Putting the Kon-Tiki Expedition to Film

A brilliant adaptation of Kon-Tiki brings the legend of Thor Heyerdahl to the masses

   Photo: Courtesy of Nordisk Film

“Just occasionally you find yourself in an odd situation. You get into it by degrees and in the most natural way but when you are right in the midst of it you are suddenly astonished and ask yourself how in the world it all came about.” So begins Thor Heyerdahl’s The Kon-Tiki Expedition, his account of putting to sea on a balsa-log raft in 1947 to test his theory that ancient Peruvians were the first to populate Polynesia. And the blithe spirit of that opening line is a good mindset for approaching Kon-Tiki, a terrific new dramatization of the 4,300-mile voyage.

A hit in Heyerdahl’s native Norway, it was the country’s entry for best foreign film at the 2012 Academy Awards. Now it’s being released in the States by the Weinstein Company, a studio so adept at winning Oscars that one wonders if the film will be entered again. It’s that good.

Because the original expedition was an international sensation—the book has sold 50 million copies—the filmmakers aimed for a global audience by producing two versions, one in Norwegian and one in English. Kon­-Tiki’s lack of subtitles will be a boon for those bringing dates; six men hanging out on a raft is, after all, not the most promising plot.

Directors Joachim Roenning and Espen Sandberg move us briskly through critical backstories: a childhood accident that explains (spoiler alert) why Heyerdahl never learned to swim, and the year he spends with his bride, Liv, on an island in the Marquesas in 1936. It’s there that he hatches his Polynesian hypothesis. Soon we’re off to late-1940s New York City, where Heyerdahl shops a book version of his big idea but can’t get publishers to take him seriously—until, that is, he proposes crossing the Pacific on a raft, at which point they think he’s insane. Kon-Tiki is beautiful to look at, beginning with Heyerdahl, played by Pal Sverre Hagen—think of a Viking Ryan Gosling. There’s a feeling-infinitesimal-under-the-stars set piece to give all but the most jaded viewers gooseflesh and a whale shark scene so vivid, one half expects to hear from Richard Attenborough.

Heyerdahl, who died in 2002, is said to have approved an early treatment for the movie, and Kon-Tiki is faithful to him, if not blind to his faults. It’s less kind to Herman Watzinger, his trusted second-in-command. This has caused some controversy in Oslo. The movie Watzinger (Anders Baasmo Christiansen) is Heyerdahl’s chief underminer. Imagine a big-budget Apollo 11 in which Buzz Aldrin turns on Neil Armstrong. But the directors have admitted to taking dramatic liberties. Most viewers will be glad they did—the confrontation between the two men forms the movie’s psychological climax.

Kon-Tiki verges on corny at times, and there are a couple of occasions when the camera lingers too long on Hagen as he experiences some intense emotion. There’s also the niggling fact that Heyerdahl was simply wrong about the anthropology. Fifth-century mariners probably didn’t cross the Pacific, but Heyerdahl proved that they could have, and more to the point, he rescued his unread manuscript from Manhattan publishers’ slush piles in heroic fashion. Like the expedition itself, Kon-Tiki is a farce. But what a gorgeous farce!

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