Thursday, May 9, 2013

Movie Review: Kon-Tiki

Directed by:  Joachim Rønning & Espen Sandberg.
Written by: Petter Skavlan.
Starring: Pål Sverre Hagen (Thor Heyerdahl), Anders Baasmo Christiansen (Herman Watzinger), Tobias Santelmann (Knut Haugland), Gustaf Skarsgård (Bengt Danielsson), Odd Magnus Williamson (Erik Hesselberg), Jakob Oftebro (Torstein Raaby), Agnes Kittelsen (Liv Heyerdahl), Peter Wight (Spinden).

While I watched the Norwegian film Kon-Tiki I wasn’t surprised that the film was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar this past year. That category is usually filled with movies that feel American made in every way except their language. The voters in that category always seem to embrace traditional stories – like they do in every other category – instead of some of the truly daring films being made around the world. There is nothing really wrong with Kon-Tiki – it’s a fine nautical adventure film as far as it goes. There’s just not all that much reason why it needed to be made – or why you need to watch it.

 The film is about the famed expedition of Thor Heyerdahl and his ragtag group of crazy explorers. Heyerdahl had a theory that the people of Polynesian were really from South American descent, not Asian, as most believed. In order to prove his theory, he has to prove that it was possible for people from Peru to travel to Polynesia using Balsa wood rafts in the days before Columbus. Everyone thinks he’s crazy, but he firmly believes – and sets out on a raft with his group to prove it.

Watching Kon-Tiki, as it goes through the motions expected in this type of film, I couldn’t help but wonder just how good the film could have been in the hands of a director like Werner Herzog. For over 40 years now, Herzog has specialized in making films – either features or documentaries – about people who are obsessed with an idea, and more than that, willing to go to any lengths to prove they are right. That is what connects films as seemingly diverse as Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972), Fitzcaraldo (1984) and Grizzly Man (2005) among many others. Their main characters are driven – almost to the point of insanity (and in some cases well beyond) in proving their ideas right. And the real Thor Heyerdahl had to be somewhat insane to attempt the perilous journey he embarked on in his primitive raft, no?

But Kon-Tiki really isn’t that interested in what drives Heyerdahl – or really who he was at all. As for his crew, forget about it – the all start blending together, especially once they’ve been at sea for a while and all have crazy, NHL-playoff type beards (one of them may well have been Brent Burns for all I know). Why they accompany Heyerdahl is never explained, and who they are as people isn’t either. You would think that as they drift for days, weeks, months on end, with nothing but each other and the ocean around them, that they may have an interesting conversation at some point. But no, they don’t. All their conversations are either about their immediate needs – like not being eaten by sharks – or Heyerdahl talking about his ideas. It gets tiring after awhile.

But Kon-Tiki is a well-made film – and it has a few genuinely exciting moments. The best is undeniably the scene with the sharks – at first one, but then the blood in the water attracts many, many more. This is the one scene in the movie that really gets the blood pumping, and gets you to the edge of your seat. The rest of the movie is pretty much pretty pictures of them drifting in the water – and yes, it is beautiful.

There is a probably a good movie to be made out of this material. Herzog could have made it. Or perhaps even these filmmakers could have, if they were interested in something more complex than what they delivered. Heyerdahl’s theories and methods remain controversial to this day, but you wouldn’t know it from this movie, which portrays him as a straight ahead hero. I often complain that Hollywood movies take the path of least resistance – that they take what could be an interesting, complex story and dumb it down. If nothing else, Kon-Tiki is an example that proves it’s not just Hollywood who does that.

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