Thor Heyerdahl and the raft Kon-Tiki braved the Pacific Ocean in 1947, sailing not only against the might and indifference of its waves, but also a deluge of cynicism from a derisive scientific community.
Heyerdahl, a young ethnographer, proposed that pre-Columbian South Americans could have originally settled Polynesia via the Pacific Ocean. This perilous journey, he reasoned, would have been made upon primitive balsawood rafts, ferried along by the western currents and trade winds.
“I will prove that the oceans were not barriers, but roads; not impediments, but pathways…”
Publishers vehemently rejected Heyerdahl’s hypothesis, not only did it conflict with existing theories, (but also?) the elected raft seemed a cumbersome vessel. During one particularly austere dismissal, a droll suggestion was offered; Thor should complete the journey himself in order to prove the viability of his claims. Bruised and facing the dissolution of his dream, Thor took the jibe at face value and began to plan what would become the Kon-Tiki expedition.
The Kon-Tiki’s journey has intrigued generations, it’s graced the silver screen through footage captured onboard and sailed across the page in Heyerdahl’s personal account ‘The Kon-Tiki Expedition: By Raft Across the South Seas’.
Director’s Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg’s Kon-Tiki (2012) offers a long absent cinematic retelling of the endeavour, replete with all the flare and splendour one would expect from a modern feature. It’s a beautiful affair, bristling with palm trees, glittering seascapes and endless obligatory sunsets. There is a veneer of CG applied to certain scenes and creatures but its tasteful, used in moderation and effectively so.
It isn’t solely a fresh coat of paint however. Whilst Kon-Tiki is admirably faithful to Heyerdahl’s original journal, its dramatic perspective allows a greater degree of insight into the author himself. Glimpses of Thor’s experiences as a child and a young scientist, explore his unyielding curiosity, but also it’s darker consequences. It’s a core theme on which the film’s narrative is hinged and it feels appropriate, sincere.
Kon-Tiki is exhilarating at times, the raft and its crew face a medley of trials ranging from colossal storms to sinister lurking sharks. There’s an ever-present sense of freedom, yet it is peppered with anxiety, dark shapes in the ocean, the unsettling rotting of the rafts logs.
The cast embrace their roles and there is an authenticity to the portrayal of each member of the expedition. Whilst they possess a certain Scandinavian charm, they certainly aren’t diluted down and retain the doubt; rivalry and insecurities that at times haunted the original crew. As the expedition progresses personal experiences and wounds emerge and enrich Kon-Tiki’s narrative, extending the journey into something of a pilgrimage.
It isn’t only the rafts crew who are tested through its ordeal however; bittersweet scenes that feature Heyerdahl’s young family are threaded throughout the film. During such moments, the absence of a husband and a father casts an uncomfortable shadow over Thor’s achievements; it’s an honest yet somber inclusion in the retelling.
Kon-Tiki is certainly a must see for anyone who has enjoyed any of the expeditions existing coverage. It’s a tasteful adaptation of Heyerdahl’s writings with a welcome dramatic edge that doesn’t feel tame or exploitative. There is also a great deal on offer for those who are uninitiated, directors Rønning and Sandberg have done an admirable job in presenting a detailed history whilst maintaining intrigue.
Kon-Tiki is out now in UK cinemas
Words> Samuel Cochrane