The voyage of the Kon-Tiki was one of the greatest DIY experiments of the 20th century, proving that six young scientists, using primitive technology and sheer foolhardy belief, could traverse the Pacific Ocean on a homemade balsawood raft. In bringing the story to the screen, “Max Manus” directors Joachim Roenning and Espen Sandberg take the opposite approach, producing a visually impeccable, professionally crafted modern vessel that lacks any of the patched-together soul of its subject. The most expensive Norwegian film ever produced, “Kon-Tiki” has already proven a runaway success at the local B.O., though murkier waters await outside of Scandinavia.
The 1947 expedition, under the captaincy of intensely charismatic experimental anthropologist Thor Heyerdahl, has already been the subject of a bestselling book and an Oscar-winning docu, both authored by Heyerdahl himself. Yet there’s still plenty of grist left for a feature film, and Heyerdahl seems just as intriguing a subject as he was an auteur.
Portrayed with great energy by Pal Sverre Hagen — who plays him not as a conventionally burly outsdoorsman, but rather as a wiry, rigidly assembled go-getter who seems physically incapable of reclining in an easy chair — Heyerdahl is first seen living with wife Liv (Agnes Kittelsen) on the remote isle of Fatu Huku. After hearing tribesmen tell mythic origin stories, observing the local flora and studying the tides, Heyerdahl begins to develop the radical proposition that the native Polynesians originally arrived from the Americas, rather than Asia.
Trashed by the scientific community, he sets out to prove his theory by sailing the 4,300-mile route from Peru to Polynesia himself, using nothing but indigenous material, and essentially surrendering all navigation to the ocean currents. He recruits three fellow Norwegians, as well as an eccentric Swedish cameraman (the endearingly goofy Gustaf Skarsgard) and bumbling, out-of-shape refrigerator salesman Herman Watzinger (Anders Baasmo Christiansen) as his engineer.
The film is clearly eager to get the boys into the water, and understandably so. But without fleshed-out characterizations of these men, it’s hard to wrap one’s head around their cheerful willingness to face probable death — Heyerdahl can’t even swim — to test a wild anthropological theory of seemingly tangential importance to the scientific community at large. (Despite the voyage’s success, Heyerdahl’s theories still have not been widely accepted.) It’s not that the film needs to provide convenient causes for such knotted psychological quirks, but it feels dishonest not to acknowledge the death wish that seems to lurk beneath Heyerdahl’s broad, Boy Scout-like optimism.
Once aboard the Kon-Tiki, the sextet is beset by omnipresent sharks, storms and the slowly mounting realization that the hemp lashings holding the boat together are loosening by the day. It’s in these scenes that Roenning and Sandberg show their class as filmmaking technicians. Though they allow individual crew members plenty of intimate moments, one is always well aware of the size of the ship and the characters’ positions on it, and the infinite variety of angles used to shoot the boat can be stunning. At times the camera circles from the air surrounding the boat, then turns around and offers a mate’s-eye view of the 360 degrees of open ocean all around. A jaunt off the deck into a tethered life-raft is filmed much like a spacewalk, and in one dramatic flourish that straddles the line between sublime and ridiculous, the camera zooms out from above the boat into the night sky, the stratosphere, deep space and finally beyond the Milky Way, then pans all the way back down.
This is filmmaking of great ambition and ability, though it’s not always conducive to solid storytelling. For one, the filmmakers feel the need to undercut the sheer epic spectacle of the voyage — and the hallucinatory surreality that comes with spending 101 days marooned at sea — with petty squabbling among the crew. Two radio technicians go at one another’s throats, Heyerdahl struggles to exert his authority, and the nebbishy Watzinger repeatedly falls into panics.
Not only are these dramas tiresome, they aren’t even true: the real-life crew was apparently a model of Nordic harmony, and the real-life Watzinger was a handsome and capable scientist who served in the elite Norwegian Royal Guard. (His relatives have understandably complained about his portrayal here.) It’s frustratingly ironic that “Kon-Tiki’s” most outrageously fantastical sequences are completely verifiable, and its most predictable, workaday conflicts are completely made up.
The film’s technical aspects are uniformly excellent, however, and the pic rarely loses momentum despite a two-hour running time. Locations in Norway, Bulgaria, the Maldives, Thailand and Malta are gorgeously shot, and special credit should go to sound designers Baard Haugan Ingebretsen and Tormod Ringnes, who manage to keep the creaking sounds of the boat slowly coming unraveled eerily present, though never obtrusive.