The story of Thor Heyerdahl's 5,000-mile expedition across the open seas on a wooden raft has already been visualized by a trustworthy source: himself, in his Oscar-nominated documentary from the late-'40s. It's often hard to believe as his journey with five other men progresses through stages of exhaustion and physical triumph, ranging from encounters with wildlife to the hopeful reliance on antiquated materials. Norway's Kon-Tiki strives to retrace Heyerdahl's course through a rousing docu-drama about the endurance of the human spirit and the pursuit of truth in the face of naysayers, while staying close to an accurate portrayal of his "experiment" in disproving common conceptions about the settlement of Polynesia. Co-directors Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg succeed in conjuring the windswept high-seas journey leading to Heyerdahl's destination, from the gathering of his crewmen and funding to how they weathered the elements, and it's replicated in an admirably picturesque and inspirational fashion.
Working from two different sources, the original documentary and Heyerdahl's eponymous autobiographical book, directors Ronning and Sandberg have the reference points they'd need to authentically present his 1947 expedition from Peru to Polynesia. The film traces his gallant pursuit as he struggles to gain funding in order to justify a decade of research, which centers on the idea that South Americans settled Polynesia instead of Asian explorers. When his research gets rejected by publishers on the grounds that the cross-ocean journey seems impossible without a proper boat, Heyerdahl gathers together the funding and a range of five brave souls -- soldiers, scientists, and engineers -- to prove them wrong by replicating the Peruvian's methods almost point-for point. Thus begins a 100-day excursion on the open waters in a balsawood raft, where the only remnants of modern tech are a camera to capture the events and a radio to communicate with the press.
Honestly, I found the first act of Kon-Tiki -- Heyerdahl's intellectual determination against naysayers and his difficultly in procuring funds -- more enriching than the heroic reenactment of the expedition itself. Troubled Water's Pal Sverre Hagen lends confidence and profound intensity to a researcher dedicated to justifying his unconventional theory, which also informs his shaky relationship with his wife, Liv (Agnes Kittelsen), who had been with him every step of the way up until this point. Watching him hit ideological walls against publishers and sailors revealed an earnest, obsessive confidence in his own theories and research, and the points where he finally finds the people willing to take a leap of faith with him, namely the completely unqualified engineer/fridge salesman Herman Watzinger, possess their own inspiring tones. Even before he departs on the Kon-Tiki raft without the ability to swim or steer the vessel, Heyerdahl's devotion to the success of archaic methods becomes a commanding force.
The journey itself across the 5,000-mile stretch of ocean becomes an expectedly breathtaking absorption of nature's scope, conveyed almost like a matter-of-fact fusion of Life of Piand Moby Dick through tests of endurance, fixation, and eminent fear of failure on the high seas. Several of the encounters that the crew endure are hard to believe, namely when they rub elbows with wildlife (sharks!), but much of the telling surprisingly comes directly from Heyerdahl's recounts -- with some artistic licenses taken for the sake of cinematic drama, some which work and others that don't. Majestic, grounded cinematography from Geir Hartly Andreassen captures the unease and beauty amid the baking sun and crystal-clear waves, opting to shoot most of the seafaring scenes on-location for heightened authenticity, while computer-generated effects expertly weave wildlife into the shots. Especially for this not being a shark-attack thriller, the sequences involving several of the predators weaving through the Pacific around the raft are some of the most stunning, tightly-executed depictions I've come across.
Kon-Tiki's conventional beauty and edifice also become a encumbrance, in a way, as every push forward in the voyage -- the bickering over their navigation issues, the collisions with weather, the heroic sacrifices -- appears much as they have in other seafaring adventures, biographical and accurate or not. There's a degree of suspense as the balsawood raft succumbs to the elements, along with its passengers, yet the knowledge of what happens to Heyerdahl limits the versatility of the film's expectation levels. What remains in Ronning and Sandberg's docu-drama is the tension created by how the expedition's leader will cajole his skeleton crew of familiar character types when their faith wanes, the way he'll convince them that they can triumph over the elements like the Peruvians once did themselves. As a result, this depiction arrives at a triumphantly bittersweet conclusion that conveys more of an intellectual conquest than an emotional one, the exhale of relief dependent on Heyerdahl's theory more than man's triumph over nature and himself.
Anchor Bay Entertainment and The Weinstein Company deserve a hearty pat on the back for their presentation of Kon-Tiki on Blu-ray. They didn't choose between the shorter English-language version or the original Academy Award-nominated Norwegian version, instead opting to fit both "cuts" of the film onto one high-definition disc. Note that this doesn't mean the same film with two language tracks: all the scenes available in the abridged English version -- 1:36:01, as opposed to 1:59:02 -- were filmed in both languages, without dubbing. So, we've essentially got two versions of the same film on this disc, both of which are comparable in digital quality after some spot-checking. Note that while the images included above are from the DVD presentation of Kon-Tiki, they're almost exactly as they appear on the Blu-ray.
Video and Audio:
Taking into consideration that we've got two high-definition presentations of the film on one Blu-ray disc, roughly three-and-a-half hours worth of material (without considering the special features), Kon-Tiki's naturalistic photography defies the odds in colorful, depth-aware ways through its 2.40:1-framed 1080p treatments. There's an inherent smoothness that crops up with certain films shot on Red One cameras, something that Geir Hartly Andreassen's cinematography can't avoid here. With that in mind, however, there's a wealth of beauty to be discovered here, both in the metropolitan sequences -- rich wood browns and complex contrast -- and the lush crashing waves and creaking balsawood of the Kon-Tiki herself. Details like the grain of rope, the textile of clothing, and water-worn marine growth offer some compellingly sharp textures, while the deep blues of the surrounding ocean and the gradation of tans in skin tones and the balsawood are surprisingly versatile.
Many of the reports I've read about Kon-Tiki indicate that the surround experience at the theaters was a robust affair, so it may or may not come as a disappointment that the film only arrives in 5-channel Master Audio surround offerings (both in English and Norwegian), lacking the added richness of dedicated rear channels. But boy, do the hi-def tracks use the channels judiciously. Even before we hit the ocean, surround effects like the trickling of a water fountain, the echo of a military supply depot, and the miscellaneous atmospheric clanking of a shipyard sprawl across the channels, while the balanced dialogue and robust music elegantly intertwine with the sound effects. Once the design sets out to the Pacific, however, the experience truly begins: the splashing of waves, the clicking of a camera reel, and the extensive creaking of the balsawood establish a nearly-impeccable environment, barring some gimmicky and thin splashing of waves in spots. English and Spanish subtitles are available with the Norwegian language version.
Outside of the inclusion of both cuts of Kon-Tiki, Anchor Bay have included a pair of supplements for some after-viewing exploration. The first is a lengthier general breakdown entitled Kon-Tiki: The Incredible True Story (25:21, HD), which basically retells the story of Thor Heyerdahl's expedition through the participation of the filmmakers, actors, and other celebrities. It's a largely inessential piece that only gets truly interesting when it veers slightly off-topic, such as when Matt Lauer talks about his first exposure to the book and the footage of the reconstructed Kon-Tiki vessel from 2006 by Heyerdahl's son for a recreation of the voyage (used in the film). Later on, the piece gets the film's creators in front of the camera, offering glimpses behind-the-scenes at the directors' methods and enthusiasm towards bringing a story they grew up with to the big screen. It's a solid little piece that goes a step above press-kit material. Also included is a featurette on the Visual Effects of Kon-Tiki (9:25, HD), an impressive stretch of nearly ten minutes of dialogue-free shot comparisons and composites.
Disc Two is a DVD presentation of only the English-language version of the film, but it does have the Blu-ray's special features included on it.
Thor Heyerdahl's 5,000-mile journey from Peru to Polynesia on a balsawood raft is intriguing enough that a beat-for-beat recreation of the events chronicled in his documentary and book, Kon-Tiki, would suffice. With a few exceptions, that's precisely what co-directors Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg have done: they've told his story of determination on the high-seas in a matter-of-fact naturalistic fashion, chronicling his crew's adventurous bouts with wildlife and weather as they stick to the methods of the Peruvians. The film doesn't achieve much beyond it being a straightforward, visually-striking depiction of determination in the face of nature and doubt, coupled with a handful of intense encounters with the ocean's anticipated obstacles. However, it's a solidly-told adventure in that regard, and it'll certainly inspire those watching to learn more about Heyerdahl and his voyage. Anchor Bay's Blu-ray and the film itself, available in both English and uncut Norwegian flavors, comes strongly Recommended.
Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site