The color blue dominates the filmmakers’ palette in Kon-Tiki: the azure expanse of open sky, the aquamarine sheen of boundless ocean, the cerulean eyes of Pål Hagen in the role of real-life adventurer Thor Heyerdahl. Geir Hartly Andreassen’s beautifully saturated cinematography nourishes the senses like a photo spread in National Geographic. The semblance is no small irony, given the magazine’s refusal to finance Heyerdahl’s daring 1947 expedition across 4,300 miles of the Pacific on a balsa-wood raft christened Kon-Tiki to support his thesis about the settlement of Polynesia. (Contrary to conventional belief, he contended that South Americans from the east populated those islands in the pre-Columbian era, rather than Asians from the west.) He and his five-man crew set sail from Peru with no surveillance to monitor the expedition’s progress and no motor to navigate his primitive vessel in the event of an emergency. He used nothing more than a sextant to plot his raft’s course. In keeping with the objective of authenticity, there was no back-up plan.
Like Lindbergh’s trans-Atlantic solo flight or John Glenn’s maiden orbit in space, Heyerdahl’s maritime journey captured the public’s insatiable need for heroes who succeed against the odds. His published account of this bold adventure remains a literary phenomenon – it sat on every baby boomer’s family bookshelf – selling over 50 million copies in almost 70 languages, while the documentary compiled from film footage he shot during the voyage won the Oscar for best documentary in 1951. Though many anthropologists today discount Heyerdahl’s theory, the audacity of his undertaking has forever ensured his place in modern history.
The narrative feature film Kon-Tiki revives the Heyerdahl mythos with mixed results. (A recent Oscar nominee for best foreign film, it was simultaneously shot in Norwegian and English to better tap the international market; this release is the latter version.) Kon-Tiki respectfully renders its 20th century explorer as an obsessed but genial everyman who seldom loses his composure. With each destructive squall and circling shark, Heyerdahl’s confidence drifts into self-doubt, particularly when the lives of his inexperienced crew are endangered, but it never falters. It’s this resolve that keeps both the raft and the film on course. Yet, at the same time, it also keeps Heyerdahl life-sized. He doesn’t quite fit your expectations of the kind of man capable of his achievement. Where is the charisma that convinced others to voluntarily participate in a potential suicide mission, or the megalomania that compelled him to risk everything, including his marriage and family, for an ideal? Granted, Heyerdahl was no Captain Ahab, but the hero depicted in Kon-Tiki is sometimes just plain ordinary.
This flaw in character development, however, doesn’t shipwreck Kon-Tiki. Although a Norwegian production, the film has a muted Hollywood sensibility that keeps things real. It’s an absorbing and often lyrical piece of storytelling that doesn’t overembellish the facts or rely on a pumped-up score or whiplash editing to heighten the dramatic action. Indeed, the occasional (and welcome) appearance of a stowaway crab adopted by Heyerdahl as the boat’s mascot is as emotionally manipulative as the film gets. In setting sail on his famed raft, Heyerdahl saw the Pacific Ocean as a pathway rather than a barrier. It’s a lovely Zen-like philosophy that befits a lovely movie.