Most everyone loves a ripping good sea yarn, so why doesn’t Kon-Tiki rip? All the exciting ingredients are certainly there for the taking. I recall as a kid thrilling to Thor Heyerdahl’s book, his Conradian account of drifting on a flimsy raft across the vast and fickle expanse of the Pacific Ocean. And yet, in a kind of perverse alchemy, this film manages to turn that narrative gold into dross, and reduce the daunting perils of a 4,300-mile voyage to a ho-hum checklist. Welcome to the reverse magic of the movies.
The first warning sign comes early when we trip over a patch of clumsy foreshadowing. Co-directors Joachim Roenning and Espen Sandberg pick up Thor as a child in his native Norway, toppling off an ice floe and fetching this rebuke from his mommy: “Promise me you’ll never take a risk like that again.” Clunk.
Cut to our adult hero (Pal Sverre Hagen) in the Marquesas circa 1937, where he develops his theory that Polynesia was settled not from Asia, as conventionally thought, but rather from South America. Pitching his idea to the National Geographic Society in postwar New York, Thor counters the pooh-poohers’ dismissals, “Those natives didn’t have boats,” with a breezy if inevitable, “Ah, but they had balsa-wood rafts.” Already, that warning sign has grown to a piercing alarm: If the coming expedition is as predictable as this yawning dialogue, we’re in for a long trip.
Of course, following each of the world wars in the last century, there emerged an appetite for a purer and more noble brand of adventure. That’s what led Mallory up Everest, and the same could be argued here. But it isn’t. Instead, with only the slightest nod to the social context, the script follows Thor to Peru in ’47, where he and his five fellow blonds, strapping Scandinavians all, set out to test the theory by building a raft according to strict native standards – nothing contemporary on it save for a radio and film camera. Then, after another equally slight nod to tension in his marriage, the captain plus crew set sail from the Peruvian coast. There, finally, the film offers its first real surprise: Waving from the deck of their diminutive craft, every one of them is dressed for the rugged voyage in impeccable suit and tie.
Months later, they’re all looking like Tom Hanks in Cast Away, yet that look just doesn’t feel earned. The drama goes missing, replaced by that simple checklist. Massive storm, rapacious sharks, the sea’s phosphorescent glow in the dead of a still night – check, check, check. It’s all there, but the action scenes never come alive, and we want to put out a distress call to a director like Ang Lee. Similar vessels, similar oceans, but in sheer terror and transcendent beauty, this Life of Thor can’t begin to compare to that Life of Pi.
En route, even as the raft drifts aimlessly and the balsa logs absorb water, the leader remains unflappable, fearless, supremely confident in his belief and, less fortunately, just as prone to clunky dialogue: “This is bigger than us.” Well, indeed it was. The saga of the Kon-Tiki caught the imagination of a public eager for loftier displays of heroism. But imagination is precisely what this picture lacks. Consequently, it’s lofty without being uplifting, adventurous without being dramatic, brave without being dangerous. Rarely has a pedestal seemed so pedestrian.