The Kon-Tiki expedition itself was an incredibly grueling and challenging 5,000 mile journey, but Kon-Tiki is anything but challenging.
The story of Thor Heyerdahl and the Kon-Tiki expedition is one so extraordinary it’s hard to believe it took this long to get dramatized. Heyerdahl (Pål Sverre Hagen), an ethnographer who spent a decade in Polynesia, discovered the natives’ ancestry can be traced back to Peru. His thesis is dismissed by the scientific community since the two lands are approximately five thousand miles apart. Heyerdahl argued that Peruvians made the journey on their wooden rafts, and in order to finally silence his critics he decided to make the same journey himself.
Heyerdahl recruits four people for the voyage: two radio operators (Tobias Santelmann and Jakob Oftebro), a childhood friend with experience at sea (Odd Magnus Williamson) and Herman (Anders Baasmo Christiansen), an engineer Heyerdahl met while trying to fund the trip in New York. At the last minute a Swedish ethnographer (Gustaf Skarsgård) tags along to film what would eventually be the Oscar-winning documentary of the same title. With all the exposition and character introductions out of the way, the crew departs from Peru to begin their 100 day trip.
Like Life of Pi (aka that other movie about a long journey at sea), Kon-Tiki deals with faith but in a way that’s less satisfying. Herman who, as an outsider gets forced into the role of rationalist, argues with Heyerdahl over the raft’s construction. His pleas of securing the raft with wire are ignored by Heyerdahl, who insists that having faith and “trusting Tiki” will ensure a safe trip. Not only is this theme underdeveloped, the fact that the journey is already known to be a success makes the theme’s presentation disingenuous. It’s very easy to look at something successful in retrospect and claim some other power is responsible. The spirituality in Kon-Tiki only amounts to a giant thud.
Beyond that, Kon-Tiki doesn’t offer much that’s interesting. It’s a very Hollywoodized production, and unsurprisingly its studio-friendly format earned it an Oscar nomination. The standard story beats, emotional cues and conflicts in adventure stories all pop up, with none of them generating any kind of response. A sequence involving a pool of sharks attacking the raft is a stand-out, mainly because of the impressive special effects. The closing sequence, where Heyerdahl reads a letter by his wife, is surprisingly effective, but most of the impact is undercut by how poorly developed their relationship is. The Kon-Tiki expedition itself was an incredibly grueling and challenging 5,000 mile journey, but Kon-Tiki is anything but challenging. It’s a well-made film, but ultimately a forgettable one.