'Kon-tiki' Review: Sea Saga Inspires Despite 'Life of Pi' Comparisons

'Kon-tiki' Review: Sea Saga Inspires Despite 'Life of Pi' Comparisons

Just years after the end of World War II, Thor Heyerdahl reminded the world that adventure was not just in destruction on the battlefield, but in conquering nature.

That’s the story of Kon-Tiki, the Norwegian foreign film Oscar nominee. Thor (played by Pål Hagen) was a Norwegian adventurer who, after living among the natives of Polynesia, grew convinced that their ancestors came not from the nearby Asian mainland, but from South America, and sailed across the ocean on balsa wood rafts.

Though anthropologists and journal editors scoffed, Thor decided to prove his theory’s plausibility by sailing the ocean himself. On a raft. Without modern technology–aside from a radio to report back his progress to the skeptical scientific community and the eager press.

Thor’s adventure has been credited with inspiring America’s early astronauts, among a host of other explorers, adventurers and pioneers. But his own exploits came at a price: his marriage suffered as the planned and then executed voyage became more than just an obsession-on the sea it was almost a religion, as Thor’s belief that people sailed the distance before overrode common sense and modern technical advancement, and put the lives of his crew at risk.

Directors Joachim Roenning and Espen Sandberg capture the nuances of relationships as well as the grandeur of the voyage. One of Kon-Tiki’s strengths is its small cast in close confines. This forces interaction and thus dramatic psychological set-ups.

Will the crew mutiny over Thor’s obsession with old world authenticity, despite the craft becoming waterlogged and its binding weathering? When the radio isn’t working, the craft is drifting off course, and storms threaten, will they abandon the mission?

The story is historical so the answer is fairly predictable, but inevitability doesn’t hinder the film. It does leave the story with a rather sudden ending, but voyages tend to end abruptly.

More impressive than the acting is the cinematography. The crew battle a raging storm, terrifying in its immensity; sharks, startling in their number and sudden appearance; and the natural currents of the ocean, chilling in their ability to dictate the raft’s path, and pushing it off course for days.

But for every impressive scene of action, fighting sharks and battling through the waves, Roenning and Sandberg capture the natural beauty of the ocean. They show the calm ocean at night, the raft drifting near giant whales, ocean life like flying fish and glowing jellyfish, and the stars innumerable lighting the way.

In particular, one majestic wheeling long take rises from the tiny raft, soars through the night sky until the curvature of the earth is visible, and then settles back on the raft, now during the day. It’s a beautiful, immense shot, and it is such camera work that help this two-hour voyage on a raft the size of a living room navigate the doldrums of its own premise.

Kon-Tiki is full of cinematic beauty. But in a year when Ang Lee’s Life of Pi won four Oscars including best director, best cinematography and best visual effects, any other contribution to the floating-on-the-open-sea genre is sure to be overshadowed.

I’m always intrigued by how very similar movies seem to land in the same year. The Black Dahlia and Hollywoodland were both 2006 noir films set in golden era Hollywood; also in 2006, The Illusionist and The Prestige both focus on magic and magicians. And Kon-Tiki and Life of Pi are both about surviving on the open sea in small, barely seaworthy crafts. They are significantly different, but when compared Kon-Tiki will no doubt be found wanting in comparison.

That aside, those willing to brave the voyage will find the adventure worth it.