April 2013

Arts & Letters

‘Kon-Tiki’

By Michael Lucy
Joachim Rønning & Espen Sandberg (directors)

In 1937, Norway’s Thor Heyerdahl decided that the Polynesian peoples had not scattered across their Pacific isles from Asia, as was commonly thought, but rather from South America. In 1947 he set out to prove it by building a traditional Peruvian raft and re-creating the putative journey(s) of settlement. Later he re-created his own journey in a bestselling book and an Oscar-winning documentary. Now, directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg have re-recreated the journey in modern Technicolor CGI-assisted splendour.

So we are some way down the hall of mirrors by the time the curtain rises on Kon-Tiki – not that you’d know it from the film’s charmingly earnest demeanour. From the opening scene, which depicts Heyerdahl as a frolicsome boy falling into a frozen pond, it is clear that our hero is a good old-fashioned adventurer who will not be held back by trivial dangers.

Soon Heyerdahl (Pål Sverre Hagen) has grown up and, with his wife Liv (Agnes Kittelsen), is enjoying the tropical idyll of the Pacific flyspeck, Fatu Hiva. They skinny-dip in rainforest waterfalls, discuss ancient lore with wise, kindly natives, and jump to shaky conclusions about prehistoric migration.

A decade passes, and Liv is back in Lillehammer with the kids while Heyerdahl roams New York trying to drum up funding for an expedition to replicate the original journey of the Polynesian settlers. Before long he is in Peru, lashing balsa-wood logs into a raft with a half-dozen old friends and strangers, and then the real story begins as they push out into the Pacific.

It’s here, above endless sea and beneath ever-widening skies, that Kon-Tiki comes into its own as a spectacle. On land, things are a little stilted: Heyerdahl’s motivation is never clear, the Norwegian cast speak clunky English (two versions were filmed – one Norwegian, the other English) and scenes look like cast-offs from other films (The Blue Lagoon, say, and The Hudsucker Proxy). At sea none of it matters, and the film is set free.

Our band of increasingly bronzed and beardy Scandinavians spend their days manfully struggling against nature. They fix radios, see whales and other wonders, face shark attacks and hope that their raft will not sink. The Boy’s Own tone is only occasionally spoilt by forced “character” moments, such as one man’s revelation of guilt over killing Germans in World War Two, or Heyerdahl’s own confession that he cannot swim.

After 101 days of open ocean, the intrepid lads wash up in the Tuamotu islands, which Heyerdahl (and the film) takes as vindication. Never mind that these days, based on largely dull, unheroic analyses of linguistics, genetics and pottery remnants, it’s generally agreed that the Polynesians originated from the neighbourhood of New Guinea.

Michael Lucy

Michael Lucy is a writer based in Melbourne.

@MmichaelLlucy

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