Call it Life of Thor! As depicted in Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg’s Kon-Tiki, the story of Thor Heyerdahl (Pål Sverre Hagen), the Norwegian-born writer, ethnographer and thoroughly badass adventuring expert, and his 1947 raft trip from Peru to Polynesia affords similar wonders of the ocean as Ang Lee’s mediocre Oscar-winner. And yet Kon-Tiki is in many ways an odd counter to the nature-neon spiritualized imagery of Lee’s tall tale, focusing on the peril that comes with giving into nature fully.
Indeed, nothing in Kon-Tiki is quite as awe-inspiring as Pi‘s humpback whale doing a psychedelic Triple Lindy, but it taps into the same nostalgic sense of roughing it. Setting out to prove that Polynesia was settled by Peruvians coming from the East via basic rafts, Thor buddies up with four other adventurers, and the filmmakers, working from Petter Skavlan’s script, are adept at keeping a sense of constant action and maintenance on the raft. Nature is less all-consuming in this adventure than in Pi, and thus, the work of men is highlighted.
Idiosyncracies and accessories define these characters – one likes animals, the other one has a death wish – but the directors focus more on faces and physiques. Still, it’s not surprising that it is the creatures of the ocean that make for the film’s tensest passages. Truth be told, it climaxes early with a magnificent sequence involving an enormous whale shark passing underneath the raft, only attacking when the resident panic, Herman (Anders Baasmo Christiansen), throws a harpoon at the majestic beast.
The film labors under a very nostalgic naturalism, one that focuses entirely on the triumph and dominance of man, in his most basic form, over the elements. The directors yearn to regain a lost sense of seafaring adventure, and for the most part, they do an admirable job of that, but it’s at the cost of any ambition. There’s a sense of timidity in the indistinct yet pleasant look of the film, but Skavlan’s script makes a sober report of this wild tale and the directors follow his lead rather than any of their own stylistic impulses. Unlike their subject, the directors feel at once enamored and burdened by the impossibility of the narrative, and spend nearly two hours trying to convince the audience it all really happened, rather than locating any sense of personal weight in Thor’s heroic travels.