Director: Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg
Runtime: 101 minutes
Coming out of Norway and sporting a Foreign Film Oscar nomination, Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg‘s Kon-Tiki is a handsomely-made action-adventure film that feels, for the most part, like a relic of Old Hollywood. Featuring beautiful cinematography and simple characters, Kon-Tiki tells the true story of Thor Heyerdahl, the Norwegian explorer and writer who, determined to prove that South Americans had settled in Polynesia, crossed the Pacific Ocean using only a wooden raft.
It’s the kind of strange, ambitious, inspirational tale that’s churned out in every dramatic way possible (this particular story has already been a book and a documentary), and, for the most part, it works. A matinee idol like Kirk Douglas, with his blonde hair and slick muscles, would have fit snugly into something like this.
Sans Douglas, Pål Sverre Valheim Hagen stars as Heyerdahl, a foolishly determined young buck whose general lack of practical knowledge on how to get a raft from one end of the ocean to the other is out-matched only by his blind faith in his mission and his crew. It’s an earnest lead performance, nicely balanced by the other 5 men on the raft, all who surface varying degrees of doubt regarding the ludicrous task at hand.
And while all of these people did exist — in one incarnation or another — in the real world, it’s the adventure that has the most character here. Shot primarily on the open seas surrounding Malta, Rønning and Sandberg, along with their cinematographer Geir Hartly Andreassen, construct a visceral oceanic struggle highlighted by everything from cap-sizing storms, giant whales and vicious sharks.
To be sure, everything but the kitchen sink is thrown into this production, being Norway’s most expensive film to date. And while the money spent shines, quite literally, against these beautiful, blue waves, aided by a bombastic score, there is a notable lack of humanity to be found throughout. Hagen’s Heyerdahl never reveals himself to be a hero we fully sympathize with or understand. His madness seems to lack the romanticism of a T.E. Lawrence or the entertaining lunacy of Harrison Ford’s eccentric inventor in The Mosquito Coast.
We see Heyerdahl’s shipmates the way we believe he sees them: pawns in an undertaking deemed from the god Tiki himself, and not much more. Whatever struggles the crew goes through serves their narrative purpose, while their raft gets tossed about in the vicious wide blue open. As the film crosses into the third act, we get a beautifully-rendered aerial shot that falls through the sky, slowly pin-pointing the small raft, a mere spec amongst a never-ending body of water. The stakes in Kon-Tiki come in sizes, and the lives of these 6 small men get vastly overshadowed by the super-sized villain they face. There’s much to marvel, just not too much to care about.
Kon-Tiki hits limited release on Friday, April 26th.
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