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  • Writer's pictureBen Kemper


Or: A Series of Unfortunate Events... with beards!

A celebration of Thor Heyerdahl and his remarkable journey, Kon-tiki is more beautifully shot than any adventure film ought to be and has more scream potential than a period piece has any right to have. It’s a gripping yarn, and its visuals send Life of Pi and Great Gatsby running for their money, but its human resources rests slightly above average.

For those of us unfamiliar with the modern Odysseus: in 1947 the inveterate Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl gathered a team of four norwegians and one swede to build and sail a raft hand made raft 5000 miles across the pacific ocean (roughly from Chicago, Illinois to Moscow, Russia) in order to prove that Polynesia was settled by the indigenous people of Peru.

The film begins with segments of Thor’s (Hagen) childhood introduction to a life of adventure, as well as his first Polynesian adventures with Liv, his wife (Kittleson) where he becomes interested in the story of Tiki, the ancient myth-hero who brought the indigenous peoples from “the land behind the ocean”. Then there is a long segment of Thor’s theory being dismissed by crusty american publishes and being called out on his flighty ways by Liv, now settled in Norway and caring for their two young boys, before assembling his ragtag crew and setting off upon the open sea.

Upon the water the hardy scandinavians proceed jauntily from peril to peril. They are savaged by storms, attacked by sharks, menaced by maelstroms, and watch as their hand built boat slowly becomes waterlogged and begins to fall apart. In the rare moments when nature does not threaten them with oblivion the crew are quite capable at delivering themselves to the brink of destruction. They even manage to turn an encounter with a whale shark (the largest and gentlest of that species) into a near death experience (and just wait to see how they act when the Great Whites show up). There is also the standard cabin fever plot that begins to twist some of the crews mind and make life on the Kon-tiki quite interesting indeed.

Through it all Hagen’s Heyerdahl smiles serenely on. Despite Hagen’s unbelievably handsome features and accompanying air of authority, we don’t really see much in the way of action out of him. This may be some deeply nuanced performance on Hagen’s part but it doesn’t quite fit the handle of the character or the film. It’s like watching a production of The Tempest where Prospero knows exactly what he’s doing and controls every aspect of the plot: a valid interpretation but not necessarily one you’d pay money to see. Hagen doesn’t create an explorer (ie someone of passion, who pushes their fear and doubts down and presses on to victory) but swings in-between a Christ figure (the aloof sort painted by televangelists) and a high-functioning sociopath.

Other members of the cast give clearer performances. Erik Hessleberg (Williamson) Thor’s childhood friend and the expeditions navigator is given most of the wit, which he handles wryly, as well as buttoning up his growing discomfiture as the voyage swings closer and closer to chaos. Another excellent performance is put on by Knut Haugland (Santelmann), one of the radio operators. Still grappling with the horrors of the Nazi occupation and his part in their destruction Haugland has gone with Thor in order to keep his psychosis at bay. He learns in short order that being shut up on a tiny boat in the middle of the pacific is not the best way to do this, and valiantly struggles against himself.

The real storytellers in the film are directors Rønning and Sandberg and cinematographer Andreassen. It is through their work that Kon-tiki streams off the screen and the perils of life at sea are made both seat squirmingly terrifying and gorgeous. The beginning is a bit jumpy and the ending is a bit rushed but, like the voyage itself, you find the wonder in the middle bit.

Recommended, but just for visuals. I advise you to bring a friend to seek comfort with during shark attacks. I also suggest you seek the documentary Heyerdahl made in 1952 about the same voyage.

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