Friday, May 17, 2013

Kon-Tiki: Spirited but superficial

Kon-Tiki (2012) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rating: PG-13, and needlessly, for dramatic intensity
By Derrick Bang

Thor Heyerdahl’s Oscar-winning 1950 documentary about his famed ocean voyage was a frequent attraction during my grade school and middle school years; I must have seen it at least three times before hitting my teens.

Enraged by the constant presence of the always dangerous sharks, Torstein (Jakob
Oftebro, left) and Knut (Tobias Santelmann) foolishly decided to kill one of the
predatory creatures.
I also read Heyerdahl’s published account of the expedition — 1948’s Kon-Tiki: Across the Pacific in a Raft — and noted that articles about him were fairly common in National Geographic in the 1960s and early ’70s (which is deliciously ironic, given the magazine’s initial refusal to treat him seriously).

I therefore approached the new dramatized account of Heyerdahl’s 101-day journey on a balsa wood raft — Norway’s recent nominee for the Best Foreign Film Academy Award (losing to Austria’s Amour) — like a reunion with a long-unseen friend. And, on that level, this new Kon-Tiki does not disappoint.

Directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg have crafted a respectful, detail-laden account of Heyerdahl’s voyage that plays very much like a valentine: quite similar to the family-friendly tone Brian Helgeland gives Jackie Robinson’s story, in 42. This worshipful atmosphere is amplified by the almost saintly aura that star Pål Sverre Hagen gives his reading of Heyerdahl; once granted the months-at-sea affectation of a scraggly beard, and the Christ-like framing by cinematographer Geir Hartly Andreassen, we almost expect a halo to appear over Hagen’s head.

OK, so Heyerdahl’s messianic qualities are larded on rather thickly, but I suppose we can forgive everybody concerned; after all, the famed explorer remains one of Norway’s most cherished native sons.

The performances are heartfelt and credible, and the film certainly captures both the adventurous spirit and eventual doubts experienced by Heyerdahl and his five companions, as the journey progresses. But scripter Petter Skavlan is much better at back-story and laying the groundwork for the Kon-Tiki’s trip, than in conveying the day-after-grinding-day reality of their experiences, once the raft is launched.

On top of which, several sequences feel like Hollywood-ized peril, clearly exaggerated for dramatic impact. Such moments give the film an embroidered, boys-own-adventure aura: unfortunate, when an unvarnished depiction of these events should have been sufficiently absorbing.

Heyerdahl and his wife, Liv (Agnes Kittelsen), are introduced in 1937, during their yearlong research trip to Fatu Hiva, a tiny island in the Marquesas group in the middle of the Pacific. This initial study of Polynesia, a collaboration with the University of Oslo’s zoological facility, hoped to reveal how a previously deserted Pacific island’s flora and fauna could have reached it.

It must have been a magical year for this young Norwegian couple, essentially living alone during their research in paradise, and this film deftly sketches both Thor and Liv’s loving and collaborative relationship, and Thor’s growing interest in a new theory. Conventional wisdom at the time suggested that Polynesia had been populated, long ago, by people from Southeast Asia; Heyerdahl became convinced that ocean currents and prevailing winds suggested something else.

The crucial moment, lifted for this film directly from Heyerdahl’s book, comes when a Polynesian elder quite dramatically insists that “Tiki” brought his ancestors to the islands. In Heyerdahl’s mind, that points to Peru.

Unfortunately, he faces an uphill battle, while trying to gain acceptance for this belief. Years pass, during which he is ignored or dismissed by publishers, universities and, yes, National Geographic. Undeterred but now convinced that he’ll gain credibility in only one way, Heyerdahl decides to reproduce one of the voyages that he believes must have taken place 1,500 years earlier, and do so down to the last detail.

Meaning, the raft must be built only with materials that would have been available to those ancient peoples.

Heyerdahl constructs this ungainly craft with a team of four experienced colleagues: radio experts Knut Haugland (Tobias Santelmann) and Torstein Raaby (Jakob Oftebro), Swedish sociologist Bengt Danielsson (Gustaf Skarsgård) and navigator Erik Hesselberg (Odd Magnus Williamson). They name their craft the Kon-Tiki, after the Inca sun god. (It would be nice to understand how Heyerdahl knows these men, and comes to select them, but that’s one of many details Skavian’s script glosses over.)

They’re joined by engineer-turned-refrigerator salesman Herman Watzinger (Anders Baasmo Christiansen), an “average Joe” sort who befriends Heyerdahl and embraces the expedition for the “thrill of adventure.”

The roly-poly Watzinger is employed as this saga’s weak psychological link: a well-meaning, likable fellow who hasn’t the faintest idea what he has let himself in for. It could be argued that this depiction is both unkind and unfair, since we get the impression that Watzinger is quite useless during this journey, when in real life he collected and recorded valuable weather data about the then-unstudied Pacific.

The raft’s seventh member is Raaby’s pet parrot, Lorita, which — on at least one occasion — creates the sort of mischief one would expect from a 1960s Disney comedy.

Once past the jubilant glow that briefly lingers after they begin the journey, the men fall into a routine of observation, logbook entries and efforts to maneuver their ungainly raft. Early problems are what we would expect: storms and dangerous ocean swells, ever-present sharks and boredom.

Additional tension results from Skavlan’s distortion of actual events, starting with a malfunctioning radio that rarely seems to work ... at least, according to what we watch here. This belies the regular broadcasts that Haugland and Raaby made to American, Canadian and South American stations, which relayed the transmissions to the Norwegian Embassy in Washington, D.C.

Hesselberg also worries, day by passing day, that they’re heading northwest, rather than the desired west/southwest that will allow their raft to be embraced by the crucial South Equatorial Current: essentially an ocean expressway to Polynesia. Heyerdahl advises patience and faith, Hagen’s piercing blue eyes taking on an obsessive, mildly unsettling quality as the explorer stubbornly clings to his convictions.

At about the same time, Watzinger announces that their huge balsa wood logs — the essential framework of their raft — are absorbing water at a dangerous rate, with stray balsa chips becoming heavy enough to sink. Clearly, this is a very serious issue ... and yet we never get closure. Do Heyerdahl and his companions solve this problem? Ignore it? Impossible to say, because...

...once the Kon-Tiki finally, happily, slides into the South Equatorial Current, the saga jumps forward several months, to the raft’s climactic arrival in Polynesia.

If this narrative leap feels abrupt and absurdly jarring, you’re not imagining things. Rønning and Sandberg made a 118-minute film, but this American release — courtesy of the Weinstein Company — has been abbreviated to 101 minutes. Clearly, some essential details have been left behind.

That’s shameful.

Santelmann, Oftebro, Skarsgård and Williamson look and sound right for their respective roles, although we don’t get much in the way of character development. At times, Heyerdahl’s strongest relationship appears to be with a small Peruvian crab that has hitched a ride on the raft, becoming a living example of how one species could travel 4,300 nautical miles to make a new home.

Hagen’s Heyerdahl gets the lion’s share of Skavlan’s character exposition, particularly during the lengthy first act, as the explorer refines his theory and mounts the expedition. Hagen is wholly credible as a determined researcher who won’t back down, his slightly mocking smile greeting each setback with ever-greater determination.

Ironically, modern DNA theory and other scientific studies have reaffirmed the original belief regarding Polynesians having ancestors from Southeast Asia, but of course that doesn’t diminish the adventurous awesomeness of Heyerdahl’s journey by raft. And his expedition certainly proves that South American natives could have made a similar trip.

If this film — particularly our bowdlerized American cut — too often feels like the gentled-down cinematic equivalent of a young adult novel, well, that also doesn’t lessen Heyerdahl’s contributions to world knowledge (and let’s not forget that he would go on to make many more expeditions, before dying in 2002, at the age of 87).

Perhaps this Kon-Tiki best can be considered a jumping-off point, designed to encourage today’s generation — no doubt unfamiliar with Heyerdahl — to track down the memoir and documentary that were so ubiquitous half a century ago.

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