Published: May 22, 2013
Directed by Joachim Roenning and Espen Sandberg
Now Playing at the Charles Theatre
Every based-on-a-true-story movie has that goofy scene where the hero gets a glazed look in their eyes, and we just know that the life-changing “Aha!” moment has popped into their head. That type of hammy cinematic epiphany occurs in Joachim Roenning and Espen Sandberg’s Kon-Tiki when ethnographer Thor Heyerdahl endures a series of cruel rejections from the science community. With each declaration that his theory is “impossible,” Heyerdahl’s ears perk up just a little more. That cliched moment feels more earned and vital here, because this Oscar-nominated movie unabashedly indulges in myth-making shorthand. Frankly, no amount of character development could get to the heart of why, in 1947, Heyerdahl, along with a crew of five others, set sail from Peru to Polynesia on a balsa wood raft, built with the technology from 1,500 years earlier, to prove his theory that Polynesia was actually colonized by South Americans.
For better and worse, Kon-Tiki luxuriates in an old Hollywood, ignore-the-warts, print-the-legend version of storytelling. The movie doesn’t acknowledge that even after Heyerdahl’s trip succeeded, his theory remained in dispute. Also consider the problematic lack of characterization of Heyderdahl’s wife, who accompanied him to Polynesia in the 1930s. At home with their children, she’s neither the worried, nagging spouse nor much of a concern to the hyper-focused Heyerdahl. And Heyerdahl, played by Pål Sverre Hagen (channelling Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia), is an unknowable rock of determination backed by a crew that’s indistinguishable from one another because, well, that’s how Thor sees them. Kon-Tiki stands out because it feels like a children’s movie for adults: knowingly naive and perfectly fine pretending that untouchable heroes actually exist and matter more than all the little people.
At its core, Kon-Tiki is a relatively drama-free adventure story where the main character does exactly what he set out to do, with minimal interference. The thrill comes from watching these men expertly traverse danger. And the refreshing, full-stop, bigger-than-life tone extends to the surreal visual style, which combines the Photoshopped sheen of CGI with the too-bright, candy-colored grit of 1950s Technicolor. That tone is furthered by the English-language version released in the U.S., full of Norwegians delivering slightly stunted and awkward English. It’s a bizarre, antiquated decision that, like so many elements of Kon-Tiki, shouldn’t work but ultimately adds to its strange, from-another-era whimsy.
> Email Brandon Soderberg