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Tonight I finally went to see the film of Kon – Tiki.  Norway’s most expensive screen production to date is a visually striking re-creation of Thor Heyerdahl’s daring trip across the Pacific on a primitive raft.

The Norwegian directing team of Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg, were responsible for the biopic of World War II resistance fighter Max Manus  a couple of years ago, a film that was a huge hit here in Norway. This time the talented directing team have turned to another native hero for their new film; Kon-Tiki. One of the most-vaunted escapades of the 20th century, Thor Heyerdahl’s 1947 Peru-to-Polynesia expedition by raft, gets big-screen treatment in this efficiently told action-adventure.

With effective immediacy, the directors dramatize some incidents from Heyerdahl’s 1950 Oscar-winning documentary about the trip, and cinematographer Geir Hartly Andreassen pays tribute in re-created B&W footage of the building of the raft. The action of the film will definitively introduce new generations to the Heyerdahl legend. 

A brief childhood-episode prologue makes clear that Heyerdahl is singularly driven. The first words in the film are a warning to the young Thor as he ventures onto the ice: “Don’t do it!” At his peril he ignores the naysayers, and will again 20-odd years later, when, as an accomplished ethnographer, he finds his unconventional theories derided and rejected by every scientific publisher in New York.

The gist of those theories is that 1,500 years earlier, the Polynesian islands were settled not by Asians, the agreed-upon scenario, but by South Americans crossing the Pacific from the east. To prove it, Heyerdahl sets out to make the trip himself, using methods and materials like those available to pre-Columbian Incas, and naming his balsa-wood raft Kon-Tiki, after the Incan sun god Tiki.

Thor Heyerdahl and his crew of five men embarked on a 4,000-mile journey that most observers consider suicidal: Only one of the six has sailing experience, Thor can’t swim, and their sole concession to modernity is an amateur two-way radio.

Much of the action in the film devolves into close encounters with sharks, and their struggle to steer the raft in the right direction. Actor Pål Sverre Hagen is a perfect as Thor Heyerdahl, tall and lean with blazing blue eyes, evincing charisma and madness nearly in equal measure. 

In the most substantial supporting role, Anders Baasmo Christiansen plays Herman Watzinger, the divorced engineer who signs on first, eager to shake up his life. He’s a hangdog contrast to Thor’s unflinching willingness to leave behind his wife, Liv (Agnes Kittelsen), and kids. (A long-distance call between husband and wife contains the film’s one glaring anachronism, at least in the English subtitles: “You’re breaking up.”) Potent flashbacks show that Thor and Liv once shared a much different life as explorers, a life that he’s not ready to give up. 

Herman’s growing doubts about the raft’s construction erode his peace of mind. Amid mounting tensions, the rest of the crew (Tobias Santelmann, Odd-Magnus Williamson, Jakob Oftebroand Gustaf Skarsgård) are more guarded about their faith in the Kon-Tiki. The seventh raft-mate, a parrot named Lorita who received ample screen time in the 1950 film, is presented in a way that telegraphs her fate.

As single-minded as Thor is — Hagen’s pointed stare is loaded with self-certainty and foreboding — he’s also media-savvy, and at the urging of a crewmate turns the mission into a documentary film project. Some of the movie’s most intriguing sequences involve the filmmaking process: the use of a dinghy to get master shots of the raft; the scramble to load the 16mm camera when a spectacular creature surfaces.

This retelling of a bare-bones enterprise by six men has handsome period detail and visual effects that are convincing. There has been a debate in the Norwegian press about the portrait of the men on the raft, especially the character of Herman Watzinger, were the film definitively differs from reality. This is not a documentary film. The documentary film of Kon – Tiki was made of the crew themselves, and it earned an Oscar around 1950. This is the screen film of the story of Kon – Tiki, based on the true story of the six men. It’s entertaining, it’s fun, and for me the Herman Watzinger character made a great difference. This is of course because of actor Anders Baasmo Christiansen, he is one of our greatest character actors, and I love his work. But also the ironic dialogs, the understatements and pure joy of living in close contact with the elements.

It’s a great film, a fun film, and a visually striking re-creation of Thor Heyerdahl’s daring trip across the Pacific on a primitive raft. 

Photo credits: All photos is taken from the film, my source is here.

You can read more on the Kon – Tiki at the home page of the Kon – Tiki museum.