Category Archive for: ‘Michael Ferguson’

Kontiki — Film Review


Directed by Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg



I never read the book, so I am taking the film as presented.  It is a gripping adventure story.  As it began and I realized what they were about to undertake, I sort of wished I hadn’t come to it.  This kind of a movie is highly tense.  There is a constant sense of imminent, unexpected danger that could appear at any moment — and does.  I myself am scared to death of the ocean.  I don’t like to go anywhere near it.  I see it as deceptively benign and seductive, but extremely perilous, and utterly ruthless. The ocean kills people quickly and with utter indifference.  The hazards are myriad, often hidden, subtle, and merciless.  One of my most disturbing fantasies is to be lost at sea, helpless and alone in the middle of the vast ocean.  The thought of this makes me extremely uneasy, and I don’t like to dwell on it.  And that is exactly the subject of this movie.

It is very well done, well thought out, well acted, well filmed, and well put together.  It works very well as an adventure story that keeps you on the edge of your seat, sort of squirming nervously and gritting your teeth.  Personally, I would rather have Moby Dick: a probing, inward looking self exploration and philosophical search.  Kontiki doesn’t do very much of that.  It stays on the surface level of dealing with the immediate dramas and threats.  It does not philosophize or psychologize or ask itself what inner demons are driving a group of men to undertake such an ill-advised venture.

Thor Heyerdahl (Pal Hagen) seems to have picked up his accomplices as he went along.  They came to him offering their services.  Some people will jump to get on board a crazy, fantastic adventure, oblivious to the extreme danger of the quest.  But why?  The film is not so interested in this.  But this is what I was thinking about all the way through.  The academic question of whether it is historically possible that Polynesia could have been settled by South Americans is not enough to explain why these men undertook this.  This controversy could be settled by other means.  It is not necessary to put one’s life on the line under the adverse conditions of being on a raft at sea in order to make this point.  No other academics would do such a thing, and it was not academics that lined up to accompany Heyerdahl on this trip.  These men were not passion driven archeologists and anthropologists.  They were just guys from a variety of backgrounds who wanted to get away from something, and were willing to latch on to just about any means of doing it.

We have to look more closely at Heyerdahl and the kind of person he was to understand what led to this quest.  He was a grandiose person who wanted to be admired for his courage and daring, to be seen as someone who had the strength and the resolve to pit himself against Nature at her most perilous and emerge victorious.  He saw himself as a conquering hero.  From an early age he showed a willingness to risk his life in attention getting exploits, and nearly got killed as a small boy falling off an ice floe in a pond while trying to retrieve a stranded object on the floe.  He had a sense of invulnerability that I think the ocean tempered.  He was probably not comfortable looking inward and dealing with the mundane responsibilities of everyday life — such as a marriage.  He needed that sense of risk with the promise of great reward, similar to the inner torment gnawing at the heart of the compulsive gambler.  But the gambler creates this sense of risk and reward by betting money on the outcome of chance events, giving an artificial sense of drama and importance to something that is otherwise meaningless.  Heyerdahl took real risks with a clearly visible payoff in view.  That is the difference between the adventurer and the gambler, and why adventurers are more interesting.  Their exploits, when successful, can have socially meaningful consequences, whereas the gambler’s satisfaction is narcissistic and strictly short term.  The adventurer mentality is rather masochistic in that it starts from the position that one must subject oneself to these onerous trials and tribulations at the peril of death in order to win the love and admiration that one desires.  But Heyerdahl was able to fulfill his fantasy.  Many others who start from a similar psychological position do not fare as well, and Heyerdahl himself could just as well have ended up dead and unheard of.

Heyerdahl’s marriage was touched on, but not developed in any depth.  The film did make a point of showing him wearing his wedding ring throughout the voyage.  I suspect that ambivalence about his marriage was a significant factor in motivating this trip.  That was made explicit in his second in command Herman Watzinger (Anders Christiansen).  The other four men we do not get to know very much about.  Except for Heyerdahl and Watzinger there is not much in the way of character development.  In a short film like this you have to make choices and the film chose to concentrate on the charismatic, attractive Heyerdahl, and the dramatic highlights that occurred during this long, dull voyage.  I wish the film had been more expansive about the subsequent lives of the six participants.  There are only a couple of cursory sentences mentioning the continuation of their lives after Kontiki.  I did look up the continuation of Heyerdahl’s marriage, and he and Liv did divorce.  Heyerdahl was actually married three times in his life.

The movie gave me some impulse to read the book, because I suspect — I am sure –there is much that was left out of this film.  I would like to have seen more about the relations between the men on the raft.  The film relates a number of tense moments, but I suspect there were a lot more and the relationships between a small group of men confined to a small space for that long a time under the constant threat of death would have been an interesting avenue to explore.  There is only so much you can do in 118 minutes and this journey took over 100 days, so naturally it had to be an abbreviation.

Despite my aversion to the ocean, I do like adventure stories and am drawn to the personalities of adventurers.  I am something of an adventurer myself of a different sort.  If you have that spark within yourself, or if you just like suspense and drama, this film will appeal to you.  If you are a thinker or a psychologist, this film will probably leave a lot to be desired.  It focuses on the immediate and the surface, but it does so quite effectively and is very well crafted.

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