“It can be done!” lisps the blonde, blue-eyed Thor Heyerdahl (Pål Hagen) to a skeptical academic geographer. It’s 1947, and the young Norwegian ethnographer has come to New York City to persuade The National Geographic Society that the Pacific Islands were settled by ancient peoples from South America who traveled across the ocean on balsa wood rafts. The prevailing theory, based on a variety of genetic, linguistic, and physical evidence, was that the settlers sailed in from Asia, but Heyerdahl is convinced otherwise.
The ancient Peruvians worshiped a sun-god, Con-Tici Viracocha, an uncanny parallel to the Polynesian sun-god, Kon-Tiki. Heyerdahl notices old drawings by conquistadors that depict Peruvians sailing in wooden rafts, and the plants such as the sweet potato, indigenous to South America, was a staple source of food across Polynesia. More than merely conjecturing, Heyerdahl has to prove his theory. “Why don’t you try it yourself?” laughs the plump, tweedy geographer over his coffee.
At this point, Kon-Tiki launches into that type of movie—Indiana Jones, Tintin, Captain America, the robust period film of the boy’s adventure saga; the image of that heaving Pre-Raphaelite darling, John Everett Millais’ 1871 painting, “The Boyhood of Raleigh,” the fabled buccaneer as a wide-eyed, open-faced youth being led to the ocean by a bronzed seaman’s broad tales.
Kon-Tiki, a joint Norwegian and Hollywood venture, is the filmic version of the Millais painting. It’s romantic and hokey and about as subtle as a Norman Rockwell or a movie like Kick-Ass, but it’s a beautiful movie nonetheless. It’s gorgeous, sweeping and filled with the sense of drama and expansiveness that all good seafaring movies, like The Bounty, White Squall, Master and Commander, Castaway, and The Life of Pi have. You grow to care about its characters and you want them to succeed, to master their demons, fears and physical limitations and to just get to the damn island already. All the more astonishing is that it’s based on a true story.
As the brilliant and fearless Thor Heyerdahl (Norway’s answer to Sir Edmund Hilary), Pål Hagen has the look and bearing of a young Max von Sydow (though he doesn’t quite have that formidable actor’s unsettling subversiveness—what made him so riveting in the early Bergman films). His Thor balances his steely conviction with gentle curiosity, so that the moments of his fanatical zeal (how many men do you know who could effectively convince a crew to undertake such a maddening voyage?) is tempered by his innate grace.
Also memorable, but sadly not on screen often enough, was the lanky and slyly playful Gustaf Skarsgård (Stellan’s son) as the noted Swedish anthropologist Bengt Danielsson, the father of modern day Polynesia studies. Climbing in and out of shark cages and distracting big fish with powdered tomato soup, Skarsgård adds a much needed lightness to a somewhat heavy-handed, idealistic film.
The critic for The New York Times, Manohla Dargis, lacerated the movie in her review. “Ja, That Manly Raft Trip, Blonde Manes a-Whipping,” went her punchy headline. True, this is an ideal movie for anyone with a predilection for cute blondes, though with the casting news for 50 Shades of Grey and most of what we see on TV—Gossip Girl and True Blood—I don’t see what Dargis was making a fuss about. Manohla Dargis seemed to think that the film was a bit too straightforward with cheesy special effects: “The men are handsome, the sea is pretty and if the sharks look as rubbery as last week’s chicken, at least they add some drama.” Also, at times the English-language version of the film (there’s also a version in Norwegian) has a slightly stilted feel to the sound of the actors’ voices—a bit like The Saturday Night Live skit of the Danish Repertory Theater doing The Story of Jazz (“Ja, hey cool cat, howz eet hanging?”)
I wouldn’t disagree entirely with Ms. Dargis’ assessment of the movie, but I want to push for it in a way that might come across as romantic and naïve, but for something which I think is important. The overall spirit of the movie is essential. The sense of daring, its sweeping sense of what’s possible, and the beauty of some of its scenes—the ones with a sinuous, undulating whale shark, bioluminescent jellyfish, and the spray and whirl of a tropical maelstrom—are all part of what we want fundamentally from movies: enchantment. Thor Heyerdahl’s story of dreaming and determination is a powerful one, and not something to be sneered at, but rather embraced with optimism. There’s enough gloom and grimness in the world as it is, and Kon-Tiki is a beautiful respite.