TIFF Movie Review: KON-TIKI

Jordan reviews the film about Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl's 1947 expedition across the Pacific Ocean.

There was a real superhero named Thor. His full name was Thor Heyerdahl. He was the classic mid-century example of brains and brawn. He devised a theory that early sun worshiping tribes from present day Peru built rafts and went west, eventually settling in Polynesia. When all the scholarly presses refused to publish his work he basically said, Eff you guys, I'm going to prove it.

He and five other blonde, soon-to-be bearded men built a raft out of balsa wood logs tied with the type of rope produceable in pre-history. While they had tools for navigation and safety (and self-promotion, like a radio, typewriter and film camera) these six maniacs, only one of whom had real experience at sea, got on board and drifted across the Pacific Ocean for over 100 days.

The journey (roughly the same as from Chicago to Moscow) offers plenty of time to get to know the team. Thor, driven to the point of self-destruction. Erik, his longtime Samwise Gamgee. Bengt (a Swede among Norwegians), the wise camera operator. Knut, the muscle. Torstien, the cute one (and radio operator). And finally Herman, the nervous refrigerator salesman and amateur engineer that designed the raft, who also realizes midway through that he has no idea what the heck he's doing out there.

It's a little too late, though, especially when they are face to face with giant whales three times the size of their ship, suffering through rainstorms (from which all one can do is hold on tight and pray) and tracking with horror as they head toward the Galapagos Maelstrom (very bad) as opposed to the Central Equatorial Current (which Heyerdahl refers to as "the bus").

It isn't all hardship, though. They wake to buzzing flying fish and go to sleep by enormous glowing squibbley things that look like they belong on Pandora. Knut also grabs a gigantic shark with his bare hands and stabs it to death as it wriggles at his feet. That's just the type of guy he is.

The blonde, shirtless crew of the Kon-Tiki has been delighting readers of Boys' Life for decades, but the film (directed by Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg) does a good job of expressing both the enormity of the undertaking as well as the awe of nature. There's a money shot where we pull back on the raft until it is just a winking light, go up into the clouds, then out into space to observe the milky way and its uncountable, unknowable worlds. It's a little ham-fisted maybe, but if ever a group of guys deserved such a victory lap, this is it. (And a lesser film would have expressed all of this in dialogue.)

At the center of it all is Heyerdahl, a true hero in the classic sense, and he's well-played by Pal Sverre Valheim Hagen. At first I worried he was perhaps a bit dandy-ish (especially in the scenes when he's trying to raise money), but like Peter O'Toole's T. E. Lawrence it is this mix of the intellectual and the athletic that is so inspiring. If he was just a tough guy it wouldn't mean as much. (Also: he can't swim, which is kinda hilarious.)

I read Heyerdal's book (as have over 50 million people) and think this is a spot-on adaptation. There are moments that are very formulaic, but the big beats work when it counts. The final "surfing over the reef" sequence, which was something I always had a little trouble picturing as described, is shown here as a big budget action spectacle.

The film fails a bit when it tries to push the mystical angle of the guiding spirit of the Peruvian sun gods - something that does work quite well in the book - but this, plus an odd denouement with Heyerdahl's wife, aren't enough to raise any flags. Basically, if you like spending a lot of time in close quarters with bearded Norwegian half-naked men, this is your Avengers.

Note - the footage shot by Bengt was cut together and won the Academy Award in 1950. If you have an hour and want to see something pretty cool, I present it thusly.

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