Kon-Tiki
"Although there are no truly outstanding performances, neither are there any weak ones in what is essentially an ensemble piece."

If you want to make an epic film on a restricted budget, going with the story of six men crossing the Pacific on a balsa wood raft is an excellent plan. Better still, it's a true story, and there was good reason for the voyage, as those who have seen the Oscar-winning 1950 documentary about the voyage will know. This is the story of Thor Heyerdahl, a passion ethnographer who found himself in a position where the only way he could prove his theory - that Polynesia was settled by South Americans - was to set out to replicate their voyage. This meant using the same tools and technologies that they did. As they had no boats, it meant sailing a raft across 5,000 miles of ocean.

Actually, 'sailing' might be the wrong word. For the most part, it meant drifting. This is where that grand idea for a film starts to present narrative challenges, and it's no surprise that writer Skavlan has borrowed from a number of post-World War Two lifeboat dramas, though without lifting scenes directly. Unfortunately, rather than exploring subtle tensions between the established characters or exploring the relationship between the characters and their surroundings, he has seen fit to up the ante on confined would-be alpha male pouting and desperate straits hysteria, which gives the film a twee quality that saps its dramatic potential. This is not helped by a soundtrack which, at pointedly inspirational moments, swells up absurdly, layering on the sentimentality.

Fortunately, that soundtrack also has its effective moments, especially when Swedish composer Johan Söderqvist draws on his folk roots to convey the might of the ocean. It doesn't take long for us to move from seemingly carefree lazing around on a sunny day to desperate wrangling with the ropes in a ferocious storm, lost in a thick black night and far from any hope of rescue. Although the film veers a little uneasily between events - an adventure with a whale shark, an adventure with less gentle sharks, an adventure with glowing sea creatures, etc. - there are genuine moments of tension and times when the film rises above its linear narrative to touch on the mystical. The image of the Polynesian divine ancestor Tiki on the raft's sail gradually progresses from a quirky mascot to an icon of hope, growing in stature as the men come to recognise their smallness in the face of nature.

Although there are no truly outstanding performances, neither are there any weak ones in what is essentially an ensemble piece. Pål Sverre Hagen works well in the lead, demonstrating an uncanny ability to imitate the real Thor Heyerdahl's facial expressions and effectively capture his naive enthusiasm, to charming effect. There's a sweet, albeit very brief appearance by Heyerdahl's grandchild, Thor Andreas. The fact that the main cast is all Scandinavian provides some measure of cultural authenticity but the need to make it in English is an unfortunate parallel to the system that forced Heyerdahl to undertake such a desperate adventure in the first place. In this case, the result isn't likely to go down in history, but it's still an entertaining adventure.

Reviewed on: 29 Jan 2014
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Re-telling of anthropologist Thor Heyerdahl’s transformational 1947 journey by raft from Peru to Polynesia.
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Read more Kon-Tiki reviews:

Max Blinkhorn *****

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London 2013

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