Thursday, December 11, 2014

'Kon-Tiki' (2012) directed by Joachim Rønning & Espen Sandberg

Few things scare the crap out of me like the open ocean.  The idea of being stranded in vast watery nothingness, suspended like a mote of dust above bottomless depths freaks me out, and that's even without thinking of the gigantic, voracious monsters that could be (and let's face it probably are) lurking just out of sight, always ready to launch themselves at me in a nightmare kaleidoscope of razor-sharp teeth, sea spray and foaming blood.  

All this is why I respect and admire Thor Heyerdahl (Pål Sverre Hagen) while simultaneously thinking that he's utterly insane.  A real life boy's own story, the tale of Kon-Tiki is deceptively simple to summarise.  An anthropologist wanted to prove that Polynesia (in the middle of the Pacific Ocean) could have been settled from South America.  This went against accepted wisdom, primarily as it would require a practically stone age society to be able to travel 5000 miles across open ocean on a wooden raft.

A normal anthropologist might have built their argument on analysing cultural objects, language and hereditary similarities.  But Thor was not a normal anthropologist.  He made his case by assembling a gaggle of adventurous Scandinavians (including a refrigerator salesman who'd never been to sea) and building a raft out of balsa wood using only materials and methods available to ancient man.

Pål Sverre Hagen as Thor Heyerdahl
Naming the raft Kon-Tiki after the Inca sun god, he and his crew abandoned their fates to the whims of nature, hoping that Thor's theory was correct. For 100 days they would float in the ocean, if disaster strikes they face a watery grave. Did I mention that Thor can't swim?

The 'stranded at sea' genre isn't a particularly big cinematic field: there's obvious restrictions on scenery and character, not to mention that technical pains of framing shots on a lifeboat, coupled with shooting on water or out at sea.  Nonetheless there's been a number of excellent candidates.  The ur-example is Hitchcock's classic (and somewhat unjustly forgotten) The Lifeboat (1944), but modern examples include the terrifying double bill of Open Water (2003) and The Reef (2010), both of which fully exploit the terror of being lost in an uncaring ocean.

But the closest aesthetic and thematic companion to Kon-Tiki is Ang Lee's Life of Pi (2013). Both films combine an awe of the natural world with philosophical tendencies and both share imagery; the soft blue glow of phosphorescence at night, appearances by colossal whale sharks, assaults by hungry great whites and cinematography that highlights the insignificance of humanity in the ocean.  The two have so in common that you might assume that Rønning and Sandberg's film is stealing bits from Life of Pi – though this film actually wrapped first.

But where Pi skews towards religious awe, Kon-Tiki has a far more scientific bent. We're never allowed to forget that this adventure is ultimately an experiment; Thor so devoted to proving his theory that it overrides all else.  His unshakable confidence to his theories and faith in the scientific method makes the scientist, paradoxically, something of a religious fanatic; best exemplified when he tosses bundles of potentially life-saving wire overboard for spoiling the purity of the wooden raft.

This intense surety makes him endlessly intriguing.  As his crew grow increasingly uneasy with the seaworthiness of their raft and their chances of dying at sea, Thor radiates increasingly deranged optimism, his blue eyes radiating a believers gaze that (coupled with his bushy beard and long hair) make him look Christlike.

The pinnacle of the movie in a marvellous night-time sequence in which the camera zooms out from the raft until it's a mere pinprick of light in the vast ocean.  We pan up to reveal the curvature of the Earth and the vast Milky Way hanging above it.  The shot is held for a moment and then we begin tumbling back towards the ocean, eventually arriving back at the raft.  

It's a wonderful shot, loaded with Kubrickian levels of meaning.  We already know that the crew of the raft are consciously emulating ancient man.  Taking us up to the stars allows us to realise that the film is looking forwards as well, framing Thor's crew (and the travellers they're emulating) as premonitions of future space explorers, entering the vast galactic ocean in search of a cosmic Polynesia.

Kon-Tiki succeeds on many levels.  It's a rousing survival adventure packed with tense action sequences and well-executed special effects.  It's a moving drama; we want the eminently likeable but obviously flawed hero to succeed.  It's a philosophical treatise, going beyond the simple facts to ask big questions about the future of humanity and our innate desire to see what's over the horizon.  Scary, smart and inspiring – Kon-Tiki is a triumph. 


Kon-Tiki is released in the UK on 19 December 

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