Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl’s 1947 raft trip from Peru to Polynesia, which forms the story of “Kon-Tiki,” the opening film of the Göteborg International Film Festival, is already the stuff of legend – particularly in this part of the world. Heyerdahl’s own 1950 book was an international bestseller (indeed this writer remembers a battered paperback knocking around her childhood home), and the documentary he filmed during the trip itself won an Academy Award back in 1951. Which makes it a pleasing narrative to have this film, over six decades later, achieve a similar feat in getting nominated for a Foreign Language Oscar. But we have to wonder if there’s a certain sentimentality at play there (Hollywood does love a self-referential story, after all) because there is little more to “Kon-Tiki” than a fun, handsomely-mounted, old-style adventure story. And as impressive a feat as that is to achieve, especially outside of Hollywood, which kind of specialises in this sort of thing, those looking for something with more depth from this category may come away a little disappointed.
After spending ten years living as a natural scientist among the natives on a Polynesian island with his wife, conspicuously tall, blond, blue-eyed Thor Heyerdahl (Pål Sverre Hagen) has come to the conclusion that the accepted wisdom about how those islands were populated from Asia is wrong, and despite a lack of boat-building experitise, native South Americans could have drifted and sailed the 4,300 miles on rafts, following the path of the setting sun. Trying to sell his thesis to various publishers, he’s met with a stone wall until he decides to put his own life at risk, and the lives of the motley crew of friends and followers he gathers around him, by attempting to recreate the journey himself. The six men build the titular raft and set off on a journey of 101 days that sees them menaced by threats both external and internal, with their faith in each other, in Heyerdahl, his theory and the ancient Sun God Tiki all severely tested along the way while they become progressively blonder, buffer, bronzier, and way, way, beardier.
There are other flaws too: the period settings can feel a bit anachronistic, especially in the New York sequence where, for example, the taxis, while period-specific are so blindingly clean and highly polished that they look like the lovingly-restored museum pieces that they probably are. And it is perhaps a factor in the source material too, but aside from the suspenders and fedoras there’s very little sense of where we are in history. Considering this journey happened just two years after the end of World War II, in which Norway was heavily involved, we might expect a little more context than one supporting character mentioning his role in the war one time. Similarly, the film’s sole female character has kind of a thankless task, though actress Agnes Kittelsen acquits herself well, as do all the supporting cast.