September 17, 2013
Thor Heyerdahl was afraid of water, and rumor claims he couldn't even swim. Yet, in 1947 the cheeky Norwegian sailed 4300 miles for 101 days across the ocean on a handcrafted raft from Peru to Polynesia. He aspired to prove that pre-Incan civilizations were first to populate those Pacific islands.
The story is history. While Heyerdahl's über-inspirational crossing wasn't comparable to Columbus's unprecedented 1492 voyage into the unpredictable and the unknown, it was scary - especially since only one man in Thor's crew was a sailor...oh, and his aqua phobia. But for an even better perspective, the Kon-Tiki (named after an Incan deity), a balsa log craft cobbled together with hemp ropes, traveled three times longer and 700 hundred miles farther than the Niña, the Pinta and the Santa María.
While Heyerdahl did not have the nautical capabilities of Columbus to inspire any organization - not even the National Geographic Society - to sponsor his pelagic hypothesis, he still had enough charisma, cajones and quixotic conviction to attract five audacious mates to sign up - Columbus, by the way, skippered 87 mariners.
The balsa pontoon propelled by a sail was assembled by a Peruvian dockyard crew guided by Heyerdahl's interpretations of Incan boats as described and surmised by colonial Spanish scribes.
As no one even tested the raft before the maiden launch, sailing was self-taught by-the-seat-of-the-pants on-the-job-training by improvisation and ingenuity. So, short of scurvy, every traumatic maritime demise devised by Poseidon was confronted with wits, determination, luck and Heyerdahl's stubborn certitude. And therein is the movie's plot.
Here is a family flic where the cinematic tension comes from compressing the adventure and compromising the facts for the sake of entertainment. Writer Petter Skavlan and Directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg converted the three month passage into 96 mostly-traumatized celluloid minutes - à la Hollywood.
And blue-eyed blond Pål Sverre Hagen handsomely satisfies the silver screen's sweet tooth for Nordic eye candy.
But Kon-Tiki is not a Tinseltown production - the film was, in fact, Norway's Academy Award entry for the best Foreign Language Film of 2012. But it did try to echo Hollywood by crowding it with naval perils, pervasive problems and seafaring phobias (vicariously relying on the deep seated deep-sea fears perpetuated by films like Mutiny of the Bounty, Master and Commander and Jaws).
Whereas in the Life of Pi, fiction is stranger than truth, the 1950 Kon-Tiki film chronicling the real expedition exemplifies truth as stranger than fiction. The flesh-and-blood Thor Heyerdahl set sail with a movie camera from which a 77 minute Swedish documentary was made. Naturally, all hands were on deck, totally engaged in every crisis facing the would-be sailors. All exciting photo ops were nixed by necessity.
Ironically this absence of dramatic footage created an intense undercurrent of anxiety that made Heyerdahl's documentary the 1951 Academy Award winner, albeit no more sophisticated than a home movie. Last year's cinematic remake of the expedition over-embellished the absentee footage.
That Directors Rønning and Sandberg made an English language copy of the film is proof of their ambition to tap into an international appetite for blockbuster adventures. This dual marketing decision by the filmmakers qualified the Norwegian language version for the Oscar, while the English version offered them a universal audience.
As a foreign film fanatic, I watched the Norwegian language Blu-ray first, and then I watched in English. The close-ups are not dubbed; they are shot in flawless English. To complete the Kon-Tiki experience, I watched the 1950 Swedish documentary that I found on the Internet.
After watching the two accounts of the daring quest, the missing ingredient of the scripted adaptation was the stealth storytelling of the documentary.
From the movie's start, Thor's march through the snow was awkwardly elongated and overly dramatized. Let editors exorcize the excess. The film never discreetly transports you over the salty sea like the sands of Lawrence's Arabia. I did not leave the theater with a frightening thirst for a glass of fresh sweet salt-free water.
Still, I loved the combination of the 2012 and 1950 Kon-Tikis - in that order. And that's my recommendation.
And yes, for romantics, there is a love interest in both films and her name is Lorita. I can't say more.
Why were fashion designer Diane von Fürstenberg, celebrity Maria Menounos and TV personality Matt Lauer officiating? Totally weird choices for talking heads representing six Scandinavian explorers riding the Pacific currents.
As always, it's a treat to hear about the back story, which, in this case, is revealed by more than the writer and directors. Included were interviews of people who had a personal relationship with the real players.
The movie took 14 years to complete with Thor's life briefly overlapping the development stage of the film; he died at 87 in 2002. Until then he collaborated on the scripting. Thor Junior spent time with Hagen as he studied for his role. And we see the 2006 replica of the Kon-Tiki built and sailed by for the sixtieth anniversary of the trip. Thor's grandson, Olav Heyerdahl, crewed.
Cast of the 2012 Kon-Tiki
There were occasional clips from Thor's cinematic record of the trip (i.e. the documentary), but what a gift package this would make with a DVD combo of both the 1950 documentary and the 2012 film. (Throw in his book, Kon-Tiki, alledgedly the best seller of the 20th century.)
Alas, to combine the two films (and the book) would expose the discrepancies between reality and fantasy - a peek-a-boo behind Oz's curtain.
But, for me, it is a revelatory and fascinating pairing of facts, fiction and filmmaking - the perfect entertainment (and inspiration) for film buffs, fans and history fanatics to relish...or for you curled up on the couch with the family.
The Visual Effects Featurette covered a computerized evolution of many wide shots and water scenes. And, parents, there is a bloody scene where a shark was the brutalized victim. Touché Jaws. As expected, through computer generated realism, only animated animals were harmed in making this film.
Studio: The Weinstein Company
Director: Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg
Cast: Pål Sverre Hagen, Anders Baasmo Christiansen, Gustaf Skarsgård, Tobias Santelmann, Magnus Williamson, Jakob Oftebro, Agnes Kittelsen, Peter Wight
Length: 96 minutes
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1
5.1 DTS HD-MA
5.1 DTS HD-MA
Spanish, English SDH