Combining the tired clichés of the biopic and the rote mechanics of the maritime adventure film, Joachim Rønning and Espend Sandberg‘s Kon-Tiki manages to obtain as little distinctiveness as their Hollywood counterparts by wrapping its straightforward journey in a glossy, brightly lit sheen that nearly Disneyfies even the most dangerous of its proceedings, transforming one of the most daring scientific feats of the 20th Century — Thor Heyerdal’s (Pål Sverre Hagen) 101 day voyage from South America to Polynesia via manmade raft in an attempt to prove the Tiki settled that land from the East, a fact virtually confirmed untrue by all modern scientists at the time — into an emotionally hollow, sanitized version of the truth.
The film’s first 20 minutes give a rushed Cliffs Notes version of the ten years Heyerdal spent in South America doing research with his wife, barely cobbling together snippets of his lifelong obsession and motivations and their conflicts with his patient, loving wife. It’s clear the directors are in a hurry to get Heyerdal on the raft and get the party started, which is all perfectly well and good, but in hurrying so haphazardly through all the personal and historical context, there is little at stake aside from Heyerdal and his crew’s survival. For anyone unfamiliar with backstory of Heyerdal’s accomplishments, this piss poor setup hardly does it justice, ignoring both the rigorous research that went into even deciding to undertake the trip (diminished to a one-minute scene where a Tiki native informs him of how his forefathers originally came to Polynesia) and the passion behind his beliefs (only briefly given form in his meetings with scientific journals who deem his claim impossible).
As we abruptly shift to the adventure portion of the film, Kon-Tiki begins to find its footing, yet it’s no less reliant on predictable genre tropes that continue to undercut its emotional trajectory. The makeup of the crew alone manages to tick off every character cliché imaginable in these types of films, from the chubby coward and the two macho guys who just don’t like the look of one another to their leader, Heyerdal, not being able to swim. And while there is a certain amount of historical accuracy in some of these representations, the traits serve only as a shorthand to define and limit the characters rather than a starting point from which to further flesh them out. They exist less as malleable, living, breathing humans than rigid, immobile gears that shift as needed within the plot mechanics.
Much has been made of the film’s cinematography, which creates a look somewhere between The Perfect Storm’s more raw portrait of life at sea and Life of Pi’s outright magical realism, and there certainly are a number of striking shots, but the Kon-Tiki’s squeaky clean imagery detracts from its central theme by transforming what was by all counts an insanely arduous and brutal journey into one that may as well have taken place on a luxury yacht rather than a raft of wood and rope. Even Heyerdal himself, whose heroism, bravery and sacrifice is supposedly the film’s central core, never transcends this two-dimensionality, his true character and the remarkable nature of his feats laid out before the audience without feeling or depth. It’s as if his massive accomplishments were left buried somewhere beneath the film’s impenetrable superficial beauty, all reality of the danger, excitement and passion lost in its translation into something just this side of Swiss Family Robinson. Even the repeated presence of sharks, the only element of true danger present at all, lacks suspense and intensity, leaving scenes that should be viscerally thrilling and intensely physical feeling sensorially vapid, a word that ultimately sums up the experience a whole. The most striking irony is that a film about a man taking the most difficult path imaginable to prove his point takes the easiest path to presenting his story. Unlike Heyerdal, Kon-Tiki sinks itself well before its journey is finished.