Movie Review: Kon-Tiki (2013)



by Alan F. Zundel

“Kon-Tiki” is an amazing movie. Not only because it is based on an amazing true story, but because they did such a good job making it entertaining.

You would think the story of six guys drifting on a raft in the Pacific for over three months might be a little monotonous. But the filmmakers wisely decided to eliminate the tedium that the men must have gone through in favor of highlighting the wondrous, exciting, and dramatic moments.

Those three months fly by!

In 1947 Thor Heyerdahl, a Norwegian biologist and explorer, constructed a raft to the exact specifications of the ancient Peruvians and sailed it 4,000 miles across the ocean from South America to the Polynesian Islands to prove that the Polynesians came from Peru, not from Asia.

Those of you who were around in the 1950s may remember his best-selling book, “The Kon-Tiki Expedition: By Raft Across the South Seas,” or the 1950 Academy Award winning documentary created from footage they shot on their voyage. It is one of the few books (maybe the only one) I remember my father reading—having been a sailor in World War II, he was a sucker for a great ocean adventure tale.

The recent dramatization was shot by a Norwegian production company and released in 2012 in Norway and 2013 in the U.S. It begins with a young Heyerdahl with his wife doing research in Polynesia and hitting upon his startling new theory of the origins of the Polynesians. He writes up his research and attempts to find a publisher in New York with no success.

Convinced that the only way to prove the unlikely voyage across the Pacific was feasible is to recreate it, he recruits a crew and builds the raft. His crew consists of a refrigerator salesman who wants some adventure in his life, two radio engineers, an anthropologist/photographer, and a friend who knows how to use a sextant. Only the latter has sailing experience.

The rest of the movie follows their adventures on the high sea. The sail is destroyed in a storm, they drift off course heading toward an even bigger storm, the radio breaks down, the ropes holding the logs of the raft together start to dissolve, and the crew gets on each other’s nerves. And there are sharks.

The scenes of the ocean creatures they encounter are fantastic, and I thought many shots included real animals until I learned they had been created by computer graphics. CGI has certainly come a long way. These scenes are as beautiful and realistic as the best nature documentaries.

Flying fish skim the ocean surface, they have a brush with a curious whale shark big enough to capsize the raft, and at night luminous swimming I-don’t-know-whats light up the ocean.

And there are sharks. Lots of sharks.

In one harrowing scene a crew member falls off the raft into a circle of sharks looking for lunch, and the crew tries desperately to rescue him. “Jaws” did not faze me at all, but I gasped more than once during this sequence.

When they finally reach the Polynesian Islands the travelers are confronted with a formidable barrier of sharp reefs to cross, and I learned something about waves from the salesman’s ingenious solution to the problem. Nature is endlessly surprising.

Writer Petter Skavlan did a fine job of crafting a story arc about Heyerdahl and his wife to bracket the ocean adventure, and directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg give it perfect pacing. The principal performers (the six crew members and Heyerdahl’s wife) are all fine, each a distinct character. Pål Sverre Valheim Hagen anchors the film with his portrayal of Heyerdahl as a determined man who masks his doubt and worry behind a confident smile.

Not a dull minute in the whole movie. It was deservedly nominated for both the Academy Award and Golden Globe awards. Be forewarned the shark scene may be little too scary and gory for younger kids—or even some older ones.

I recommend you get the subtitled Norwegian version of the movie, as the dubbed-English version has trimmed some scenes and there is more action than dialogue anyway.

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