Kon-Tiki is a dramatisation of Thor Heyerdahl’s 4,300-mile, 101-day journey across the Pacific by balsa-wood raft, which took place in 1947, and was a remarkable achievement, unlike this film, which so isn’t. True, it does what it says on the tin. There’s an ocean, and it’s traversed. There is jeopardy, most notably in the form of a big plasticky shark. But it’s played as such a straight-up-and-down, old-fashioned, formulaic adventure that it lacks any intimacy or feeling and almost can’t be bothered with its own characters. Consequently, it’s as bland as it is blond, and it is exceptionally blond. As styled by Th’Oreal, I guess you could even say.
To jog that old memory of yours, Thor was a Norwegian ethnographer and adventurer who was convinced the Polynesian islands were not initially populated by Asians, as conventionally thought, but by South Americans. To prove his theory, he built a raft as early South Americans might have built one, assembled a crew, and sailed from Peru to the Tuamotu Islands. Thereafter, he became an international sensation. His book, The Kon-Tiki Expedition, became a bestseller all over the world while his 1950 documentary about the expedition won an Oscar. It’s hard to know, actually, what the point of this film is, except this is Norway’s most expensive film ever, and maybe Norway hasn’t had a better story since? It’s even made the film twice: one is in Norwegian and the other is the one I saw, in which the actors are made to speak English. This minded me of a TV show from my childhood, Tales From Abroad, in which foreign actors were dubbed into English, but with an accent. That was distracting and distancing then, and this is distracting and distancing now.
The film opens as it means to go on; that is, in a pedestrian manner. It begins with a prologue of Thor as a little boy falling from an ice floe into the water, and his mother rebuking him with: ‘Please don’t ever take a risk like that again.’ (I think that, should you ever take a scriptwriting course, this will come under the heading of ‘How To Clumsily Foreshadow’). The action then switches to Thor as a grown man (Pal Sverre Hagen) researching in Polynesia, where certain discoveries set him thinking: if the pineapple is indigenous to South America, what is it doing here? Next stop, New York, where he attempts to raise money for the trip, unsuccessfully, until the Peruvian ambassador acquiesces. He assembles a crew of four Norwegians and a Swede. One is an engineer who now sells refrigerators. One knows about radio. One’s a navigator. One can operate a camera. One is good at something else, but I can’t recall what now. The fact is, I couldn’t distinguish between them, and still can’t distinguish between them, which is why I haven’t inserted the actors’ names. They’re all handsome. They’re all blond. They all attract similar sunburn and beards. And they all look hot in Persil-white vests, even after some weeks at sea.
The sea is the star. Directed by Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg, Kon-Tiki was filmed on an open sea, rather than against a green screen, and the sea is magnificent, particularly in scenes where the raft is shown as a tiny pinprick against the vastness of it. The jeopardy, meanwhile, seems like a box-ticking exercise. Storms? Tick. Whales? Tick. Big plasticky shark? Big plasticky tick. And unlike, for instance, Captain Phillips, in which we also knew the outcome, this fails to ramp up suspense irrespective of that. Will the balsa absorb too much water and sink? No, you will say to yourself. Will the raft make it over a razor-sharp reef? Yes, you will say to yourself. Is that the one who is good at radio? No bloody idea, you will sigh.
This lacks personality. Any personality, anywhere. The crew are as indistinguishable personality-wise as they are physically, and we discover nothing about them. You’d have thought there would have been quite a bit of downtime on the raft, but no one ever talks to anyone else, or asks: so, why did you embark on a journey most consider suicidal? There is a brief moment when it looks as if one of the crew (the former fridge salesman, maybe) is going insane, Queeg-style, but then he simply doesn’t. Beyond a certain amount of narcissism and egoism, we never understand what drives Thor. Interestingly, he could not swim, yet he never found it within him to learn? How so? Why did he let that defeat him? And the film is so hero-worshipping it never questions him or the trip or anything. For example, could the raft really be considered a replica when it carried a radio and a dinghy and a film camera and army rations and desalination tablets? Even: was he right? (No, anthropologists still maintain; the fact South Americans could have made that trip doesn’t mean they did.) So, it’s as bland as it is blond, and now I won’t see you again until the other side of Christmas. If any of us survive that particular journey, that is…