In 1947, laden with little more than a theory, Norwegian explorer, anthropologist, and writer Thor Heyerdahl and five other Scandinavians (four Norwegians, one Swede) hopped aboard the “Kon TIki,” a raft made of balsa wood and rope in Peru and floated across the Pacific Ocean to Polynesia. Their hundred-day journey proved that it was possible for native South Americans to have settled the Polynesian Islands thousands of years ago, upending popular scientific thought of the time. Kon Tiki, Norway’s submission to the 2013 Academy Awards, is the story of Thor’s crew’s adventure.
Scandinavia has been home to skilled movie-makers since the dawn of cinema. In fact, many scholars believe that had Hollywood not wooed Scandinavia’s most talented silent filmmakers to California in the 1920s, Sweden might well have become the center of the cinematic world. Early innovators such as Victor Sjostrom, Carl Theodor Dreyer, and, a bit later, Ingmar Bergman, established a tradition in Scandinavia that continues today in the work of Joachim Trier, Kay Pollak, Erik Poppe, Niels Arden Oplev, Lars von Trier, and Kon Tiki director Joachim Ronning. Their films display a patient craft and ambitious inventiveness that would make their forerunners proud.
Kon TIki is an historical drama as charming as it is thrilling. The film focuses primarily on the first twenty days of Heyerdahl’s adventure. That’s when their success was most in jeopardy and when the tensions between the crew members were at their height. To the film’s credit, the story has been slightly dramatized to saturate the emotional stakes of the story – there are more sharks in this movie than in all the Jaws movies combined. In a year that didn’t include another movie about floating across the ocean that took a tiger along for the ride, Kon Tiki would be the kind of oceanic adventure audiences ought to flock to see. (It is entirely in English as well, so don’t let an irrational fear of subtitles keep you away.)
The movie goes to great (and beautiful) lengths to demonstrate how Heyerdahl’s daring inspired a generation of adventures who took not to the sea but to the stars. The digital camera’s sweep up from Thor’s fire-lit raft to the full moon overhead is as inspirational as it means to be. The shot made me want to seek out new worlds to explore.
Even more explicit is Kon Tiki’s discussion about faith. Thor keeps his faith – that floating across the Pacific on a native engineered raft is possible – no matter the objections of everyone around him, including his crew. Thor’s flavor of “do it my way no matter what anyone says” faith will be probably inspire at least a few sermon illustrations. I wonder if those sermons will also dwell for at least a moment on the collateral damages of Thor’s faith. The movie makes a point of showing his wife and kids left alone in Norway, the strain it puts on his friendships, and the risks he takes with his life and the lives of his crew members.
More interesting to me are the equivalencies Kon Tiki makes between faith and scientific theory. Too often in our world faith and science are put at odds. From faith’s perspective, science is devoid of imagination and compassion. From science’s perspective, faith is devoid of forward thinking and reasonableness. Kon Tiki does a good job showing how good science is flooded with faith and how strong faith is graced with objective reasoning. They both hinge on what is observable up to a point and then require a leap into what is uncertain. Faith and science should be better friends. If they were, we would live in a better world. Thor’s science showed him that Polynesia was probably settled by Peruvians. His faith carried him across the sea to his proof.