Film: Kon Tiki

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Kon Tiki | Directors Joachim Rønning & Espen Sandberg | Score: 6.8

It’s become increasingly apparent that reality shows have spoiled our sense of true adventure. Watching gaggles of idiotic D-list celebrities and aspiring wanna-be’s parading about on remote islands and desert landscapes in torn-up rags, plotting against one another (or paired up and sent on ludicrous “missions” on international terrain) has become synonymous with what used to be our sense of wonder at true adventurers, willing to risk their lives in order to pursue titanic human achievements or scientific discovery, humbled and made noble by their efforts. The world was watching them, but unlike our rag tag reality show ship of fools today, these brave souls generally only appeared before they left and right after their return: The rest of their adventure was what only they knew and the rest of us pined to hear about.

One such adventurer, Thor Heyerdahl (Pål Sverre Hagen), in this mostly fact-based account, did his damage in the immediate aftermath of WW II. In order to prove his theorem that Polynesia was populated not by Asians, as was the long-held belief, but by Peruvians, crossing some 5000 nautical miles on nothing much more than an elaborate raft, he and a small assortment of makeshift crewmembers, were driven to prove it through their own first-hand experience.

That Thor, an unlikely leader for such an ocean-based expedition as he couldn’t even swim, proved all the skeptics wrong is only part of this remarkably gripping story. Convinced beyond all reasonable doubt of his theory, he insisted that they build their craft exactly the way the ancient Peruvians (Tikis) would have done, using ropes instead of wires, wooden stakes instead of nails and ancient cotton for his lone sail.

This doesn’t entirely sit well with members of his five-man team, including Herman Watzinger (Anders Baasmo Christiansen), an engineer-turned-refrigerator-salesman, who had absolutely no experience on the water or with science. So callow and unlikely is Thor’s crew, only one member can even correctly identify starboard — that would be Bengt Danielsson (Gustaf Skarsgård), Thor’s oldest friend and a former sailor for the Norwegian Navy. Rounding out the assortment, we have Knut Haugland (Tobias Santelmann), a seasick radio operator, Torstein Rabby (Jakob Oftebro), a dashing young gun with a love of adventure, and the lone Swede, Erik Hesselberg (Odd Magnus Williamson), a rugged ethnographer who shoots the footage of their voyage with a sturdy 16-mm camera.

Despite our early assumption that Thor will indeed be proven right by the time the end credits roll, filmmakers Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg fill their film with all the glorious spectacle and terrifying possibility of the Pacific. Along their journey, the crew endure heavy storms, lashing waves, their own internal bickering, and a plethora of giant great white sharks that seem to follow them just below the surface waiting for the slightest misstep.

Through it all, Thor maintains his rigid held belief in himself and his theory, constantly reassuring the crew by exhorting them to “have faith.” In one telling moment just at the beginning of their voyage, Thor takes in the panorama of ocean all around him — suddenly it’s just them and their tiny boat against the full potential fury of nature. The camera follows his gaze in a sweep around the horizon, with blue churning water in all directions, and at last resides back on his face, his look not one of apprehension but unbridled joy. That resolve is tested, of course, throughout the course of their 101 days at sea, and the film doesn’t let him carry that optimism as an empty banner.

Such is the clarity and skill that the film is made that the shark scenes appear horrifically, frighteningly real. In one heart-stopping sequence, a crewmember slips off the raft and into a tumble of great whites, already inflamed by the smell of blood in the water, and the remaining crew of the raft have to watch in horror as things go from bad to worse before someone attempts to intervene.

Instead of giving us a glad-handed, mailed-in adventure story where the outcome is never seriously in doubt no matter what horrific odds appear to be stacked against our heroes, Rønning and Sandberg’s skillful film keeps us edgy and uneasy even when we think we know how things will turn out.

The result is a fine adventure story, one that holds you fast, and offers you a glimpse of just how courageous and willfully stubborn you had to be when you were truly breaking new ground, and not just filming the 19th season of a repetitive drone of a reality series.

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Piers Marchant is a Philly-based writer and editor, and the EIC (and film critic) for two.one.five magazine (215mag.com). His reviews can be found on 215mag.com and his tumblr blog, Sweet Smell of Success.  You can also follow him on twitter @kafkaesque83.

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