The life of Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl is the stuff of legend: an ethnographer who sailed 8,000km across the Pacific Ocean on a self-built raft (from Peru to the Tuamotus Islands) in 1947 to prove his theory that the Polynesians originated from South America, not Asia as was the prevailing scientific belief. He subsequently penned a best-seller (The Kon-Tiki Expedition: By Raft Across the South Seas), and directed an Academy Award-winning documentary (Kon-Tiki, 1951). Heyerdahl is now being celebrated in the time-honoured Hollywood tradition, by way of a biopic that recreates his remarkable voyage in Kon-Tiki, an epic production which is Norway’s most expensive to date and was itself nominated for an Oscar (Best Foreign Film) this year. The internationally-financed feature was shot in both Norwegian and English, with the multilingual actors performing each take twice, and it was the English version that premiered in Auckland last night as part of the NZIFF’s Autumn Events. Co-directed by Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg (Max Manus: Man of War), the film stars Pål Sverre Hagen as Heyerdahl, who cuts a dashing figure but lacks the required presence to hold our interest throughout. The same can be said for much of the supporting cast, including his wife (Agnes Kittelsen) and voyage companions (including Anders Baasmo Christiansen, Gustaf Skarsgård and Odd-Magnus Williamson), who mostly lack strong characterisation and depth. Where the film excels, however, is in its breathtaking visuals once the Kon-Tiki gets out on the water — the crystal clear seas of Malta are a sight to behold — and the filmmakers display great craftmanship once the crew get into trouble with crashing waves, thundering storms and the relentlessly present threat of sharks. Kon-Tiki works well enough as a biopic and history lesson (even if it clearly takes a few liberties) despite the character flaws, but it is chiefly enjoyable because this kind of old-fashioned adventure story rarely gets made anymore, and the beautiful cinematography looked spectacular on the giant Civic Theatre screen.
Kon-Tiki is currently screening at the New Zealand International Film Festival’s Autumn Events. For more information head to their website, and see the trailer below.