FILM NOTE: Kon-Tiki, directed by Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg, with Pal Sverre Valheim Hagen as Thor Heyerdahl, from Norway
Kon-Tiki is one of the world’s great stories -- not so well told in this movie BUT the story is SO good it’s worth seeing the movie anyhow.
It's an astonishingly audacious adventure. The Norwegian ethnologist Thor Heyerdahl in 1947 crossed the Pacific Ocean from Peru to Polynesia in a raft to prove a scientific point.
Heyerdahl, who had done field work in Polynesia believed that compelling cultural similarities between South America and Polynesia indicated that Polynesia had originally been populated by migrants from Peru. This countered prevailing scientific opinion that Polynesia had been populated from Asia: after all, it seemed impossible for early people with primitive technology to travel the 5,000 miles across the Pacific it takes to get from Peru to Polynesia. Any cultural similarities between South America and Polynesia were written off as the result of independent inventions in Peru and Polynesia.
Heyerdah saw a way to prove his point: he’d make the journey. So, with his crew of six, he built a primitive balsa wood raft, no modern materials, and, trusting on the currents to carry them there, drifted motorless from Peru to Polynesia.
A tiny raft in the Pacific ocean for a little over three months -- the journey was fraught with difficulty. The balsa wood began to get soggy, the raft lay lower and lower in the water, storms, high waves, sharks, whales, exposure all took their toll. And when they did sight land, a razor edged reef nearly finished them off. The movie gives dramatic coverage to all these threats to their lives and obstacles and to their triumphant arrival in Polynesia.
So what, then, is wrong with the movie -- outside of the fact that Pal Sverre Valheim Hagen lacks Heyerdahl’s grit , though other actors come across convincingly as outdoorsmen and adventurers?
It is episodic and not smoothly continuous. On the current-driven raft, the big threats -- men overboard, whales, sharks, powerful thunder and lightening storms, towering waves -- appear like vignettes in a Disneyworld tracked boat ride -- there they are, now they’re past, what’s ahead? The time in between -- daily tasks, food limitations, exposure, and boredom -- are referred to but not shown. For example, after one crisis Heyerdahl tells the crew to get back to their tasks: what are they? What do you need to do daily on a drifting balsa raft? A lot? or not much?
The film shows what happens consecutively but is skimpy on how it happens. There are views of the raft being built in Peru but we don’t get the sense of the mechanics of it, the how. Raising money for the project is referred to but how did he succeed? These kinds of nitty-gritty which make Heyerdahl’s book of 1950, Kon-Tiki: Six Men Cross the Pacific on a Raft, so compelling, are not made vivid. When a storm arises, we see its bigness, men clinging to posts, water washing over everything, but we don’t get the narrative of a storm with the clarity the movies usually give such scenes.
The film short-changes Heyerdahl’s intellectual purpose. I found this truly beyond annoying. In the early scenes, the Heyerdahl character states clearly his scientific purpose to prove that humans could have rafted from Peru to Polynesia, but by the end the importance of the Kon-Tiki expedition is related to its inspirational effect on future explorations, sending men into space, etc. Irrelevant. Heyerdahl didn’t prove that Polynesia was populated from Peru, but he did prove that contact between them was possible.
He broke through the fixed idea that there was no contact between the Americas and Polynesia, and showed that the cultural similarities may be the result of the movement of humans and the ideas they carry with them. He provided a new lens to view all scientific information touching on these regions, and that, as he thought, for early humans, water was a road, not a barrier.
Not that is was ever an easy trip!
So should you see the movie? Yes. Heyerdah’s proving his point is one of the great adventure stories of all time -- physical and intellectual, and here’s a chance to know about it.
And if you have a chance, read the book.
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