|A dicey moment on the raft in Kon-Tiki.|
««« Kon-Tiki. Written by Petter Skavlan & Allan Scott. Directed by Joachim Rønning & Espen Sandberg. At select theaters.
There was a time, not so long ago, when Norwegian anthropologist Thor Heyerdahl was as familiar a name from the world of science as Carl Sagan or Jane Goodall. Generations of adolescents grew up reading Kon-Tiki, his bestselling 1950 account of his quest to prove the Pacific was first colonized by ancient Native Americans. Heyerdahl, though not conventionally trained, was one of the more popular figures from the heroic era of field anthropology, a gambler who put his own skin on the line for his theories.
Alas, Heyerdahl’s mode of thinking—diffusionism on steroids, envisioning ancient Peruvians in Polynesia, ancient Egyptians in the Americas, etc.—hasn’t aged well. In this era of genetic analysis, spoilsports in lab coats easily debunk such theories without leaving their benches. His model of traditional cultures using the oceans as long-distance highways has also run afoul of the cultural particularism typical of modern academic anthropology, which tends to emphasize the uniqueness of cultures over their common heritage. This writer spend two years in Cornell’s Department of Anthropology without hearing Heyerdahl’s name uttered once.
No surprise, then, that if Heyerdahl is to be rehabilitated, it’s not as a scholar, but as an adventurer of cinematic proportions. In Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg’s retelling of the Kon-Tiki voyage, the young Thor (Pål Sverre Hagen) might as well be Columbus discovering a new continent. When we first see him as an adult, he looks like a fresh, svelte Peter O’Toole towering over the swarthy natives, the Thin White Duke of participant-observers. Superficially, he might be mistaken for a great white European, come to teach the natives their real history. But in fact Heyerdahl was in Polynesia not to educate its people, but to learn from them. His theory of the peopling of the Pacific from the east, from out of the rising sun, took the natives’ oral accounts of their own origins more seriously than linguists and geneticists do today.
Unable to sell his theory to New York publishers, Heyerdahl decides to prove a voyage from Peru to Polynesia is possible by constructing a traditional log raft and sailing all 4300 miles himself. With just a puny sail, and a crew of mostly green sailors (Anders Baasmo Christiansen as the panicky American, Tobias Santelmann, Gustaf Skarsgård and other rugged Nordics), his Kon-Tiki is literally at the mercy of wind and current. The script by Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg pumps up the suspense with its storms and frequent visits from sharks, but not by much. Indeed, compared to the fictional exploits in Life of Pi, this is pretty tame stuff.
Kon-Tiki is beautifully shot. What truly makes it worthwhile, though, is Hagen’s subtle performance as Heyerdahl. Though the filmmakers could have easily gone in a Herzogian direction, making him into monomaniac in a death spiral, Hagen strikes an interesting balance between beatific poise and ruthlessness. When Christiansen, playing the American engineer, begs to reinforce the balsa logs with steel wire, Hagen tosses the wire into the sea. And oddly, we neither pity him nor hate him for it. When he admits that he embarked on his epic voyage at sea without knowing how to swim, we see not stupidity, but a quiet, brave fatalism. He’s not crazy, but he’s definitely “all in”. Herzog may have cornered the market on explorers who never come home, but I’d rather go to sea with a guy like Heyerdahl.
© 2013 Nicholas Nicastro