Drifting with the Current of Memory: Kon-Tiki (2012)

Once upon a time a young school girl, an English language learner in the then British Colony of Hong Kong, had to read an abridged version of the book The Kon-Tiki Expedition written by Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl. The ESL student was told it was a true story. She was most curious to find out the details of this extraordinary journey of six men on an open raft roughing it on the tumultuous South Seas. But due to her limited English language skills, she had a hard time comprehending the details of the adventure Heyerdahl described.

Now decades later, as soon as she knows that a movie by the name of Kon-Tiki is showing on the big screen, her long tucked-away curiosity is unleashed. Now she finally has a chance to find out what this sea voyage is all about. Here are the ripples.

Norwegian ethnologist and explorer Thor Heyerdahl embarked on The Kon Tiki expedition in 1947 to prove his own theory that the Polynesian Islands on the Pacific Ocean were first colonized by people from Peru in South America some 1,500 years ago, and not those of nearby Asian countries as generally thought. Heyerdahl and five other men built a raft with balsa wood, using ropes and technology of pre-Columbian times, and set sail on it by letting it drift with the current from Peru, just to prove the feasibility of such a journey. Only one of the men had had some navigation experience, and, we found out later in the film, Heyerdahl himself could not swim. But in 1947, after a period of 101 days, they succeeded in reaching the Polynesian islands, almost 5,000 miles away. Quite a risky trip to prove a self-propelled theory. Herein was sown the seed of adventure and endurance.

Kon-Tiki (2012)

The film is 2013 Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film from Norway. It starts off well by showing a young Heyerdahl as a child in Norway already a risk taker who seeks out the most dangerous feats to perform. The camera works at eliciting interesting human faces with close-ups of a mischievous child growing into a tall, blond hair, blue-eyed, chiselled physique, explorer of the Polynesian Islands. Listening to an aboriginal elder tell their people’s story, Heyerdahl (Norwegian actor Pål Sverre Hagen) is determined to test his theory with his life on the line, against the restrained protest of his wife Liv (Norwegian actress Agnes Kittelsen). More treatment of the conflicts is much wanting here, as enthusiasm of the adventurous husband meets exasperation from his wife and mother of his two boys.

Likewise, while on the rough seas, conflicts and comradeships among the six men seem to give way to tense moments of swashbuckling shark fights. At certain points, scenes from Life of Pi came to mind… the flying fish, the whale circling under the raft, the shark attacks, the sun sinking beneath the horizon. Moments that are aesthetically gratifying in Pi appear to be quite matter-of-fact here. No matter, Norwegian directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg chose to use a simple and straightforward style to tell their story, nothing philosophical to be pondered as in Pi.

If just to satisfy the curiosity of the once bewildered school girl, the movie suffices. It captures my attention and offers some suspenseful and thrilling scenes, at times reminiscence of yet another movie, Jaws. So, Pi and Jaws, what images the Kon-Tiki movie leaves me with that are its own are basically the six messy blond hair and bearded, muscular (except one), well tanned Norwegian and Swedish men speaking English, and, looking quite similar to each other. Eventually, they see a gull flying in the sky. Spirits are highest at that point, for land is near.

What’s quite effective is the inclusion of what seems to be the archival black and white footages of the original trip well mashed into this modern version. But here’s my disclaimer: Upon this first viewing, I’m not too sure if they are the actual footage, or imitation archival footage. I have tried to find out on Google but to no avail. However, I did find out that all the ocean life of sharks, whales, and fish are CGI, computer generated images… just like in Pi.

It’s also interesting to note that, at the end of the movie when the credits roll, there is a disclaimer stating the movie is fictional and that any relationship to the facts is accidental or coincidental. With this, I as a viewer is at a loss as to the accuracy of the whole storytelling on screen. This points to the value of the actual footage which the real life Thor Heyerdahl shot with his 16mm camera, later edited into a feature film that won the 1951 Academy Awards for Best Documentary.

We know for a fact that they reached their destination, no small feat of survival and endurance that from my childhood memory, was much more detailed even in the abridged ESL version of the book. So, yes, it looks a bit too easy and simplified in this movie. And, the ultimate argument still remains like a hung jury. The fact that they had succeeded in reaching the Polynesian Islands on an open raft all the way from Peru did not prove that the Peruvian had colonized the Islands. The film did not deal with this argument. But, just for satisfying the curiosity of the once young and bewildered English learner, it is a sufficiently entertaining movie. A highly watchable summer beach flick.

~ ~ ~ Ripples


Related Posts:

Life of Pi: The Magical 3D Experience

Life of Pi by Yann Martel: Take the Literary Journey Before the 3D Experience 


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If she’s not birding by the Pond, Arti’s likely watching a movie, reading, or writing a review. Creator of Ripple Effects, bylines in Asian American Press, Vague Visages, Curator Magazine.

16 thoughts on “Drifting with the Current of Memory: Kon-Tiki (2012)”

  1. Definitely looking forward to this film. Roomie came across a French version of the book and, wanting to practice her French, she read it and enjoyed the adventure very much. Her family visited Norway some years ago and saw the original boat at the Kon Tiki Museum.

    Very odd that this film considers itself fictional.


    1. nikkipolani,

      Then you two must see this one. But having seen the original boat, the movie may just be too fake to arouse much sentiments. However, it’s a nice summer treat still. As for the disclaimer, to put on screen they must have ‘altered the truth’ somewhat or added content for cinematic effects. So at the beginning it says ‘based on a true story’, and at the ending this disclaimer… well protected.


    1. Stefanie,

      I suppose they need to protect themselves when adapting into film… esp. events not mentioned in the book. No, I haven’t watched the 1950 doc. Should be even a more interesting take.


  2. Agree pretty much with everything you say, Arti. We saw this 2-3 months ago now and, like you, I had it as a school text. First year high school. It’s highly watchable as you say but ultimately disappointing .. After they made that point where they had to turn west or be lost it seemed like all plain sailing for what was, in fact, most of the trip. I’m guessing that’s how it was. I can’t recollect. But I think this fact affected the overall drama AND if it was fictional then they may as well have upped the drama! That’s the challenge of historical drama versus documentary isn’t it? Still, like you, I’d recommend it. I just didn’t think it was great!


    1. WG,

      You’re right… a bit more dramatic and go deeper in characterization could help. Also, maybe this is with characters speaking in ESL (right) I found some dialogues quite wooden, both in the writing and the delivery. Anyway, just shows how difficult it is to make a good movie. 😉


      1. I can’t remember “woodenness” but that’s not to say I didn’t notice at the time. It just wasn’t memorable enough. In fact, I’d pretty well forgotten it until your review popped up in my inbox. Hmmm …


  3. Oh…My…God! About 50 years ago, my family went to visit my aunt and uncle in Ohio. My darling uncle was a huge reader and belonged to numerous books of the month type clubs. When my dad was ready to pack us into the car to go back to Chicago, my uncle asked him to wait…he had something up in the attic he wanted to give us. He came down with a giant box of books. I still have most of them. Among the titles were The Wreck of the Mary Deare, Caravan to Xanadu, and Kon-Tiki. Oh, those books were a joy – the long drive home was magic. I think my sister might have laid claim to Kon-Tiki (she read it before I did), but I still remember the fabulous cover of that small raft amid giant waves on a dark and stormy sea. And the story was even more thrilling because it was true. I haven’t seen the movie, and don’t know what I’d think of it, but the book was fabulous and has stayed with me decades later.


    1. Grad,

      I never expected this story had touched so many of us way back in our younger days. Of course, it was quite a human endeavor, albeit not as famous as the Lindbergh transatlantic flight, or Shackleton’s endurance in the Antarctic. But most unexpected of all, the story had played a part in our growing up days, we who were in different continents (WG in Australia, you in U.S., me in HK) during those times.

      Thanks for throwing your two pebbles into the pond. Love reading your sharing of some fond childhood memories. That’s what books and movies can do for us all… linking our past with the present, and, linking us who are so far apart in terms of physical distances. Simply awesome. 🙂


  4. Thanks for sharing this. I’m so out of touch with what’s at the movies these days. But this looks like something I would really like. I don’t THINK I read the book, but I remember it being out and even have a vision of seeing it in paperback in some place I lived. So someone must have! But I would find it especially fascinating now. Thanks much!


    1. Jeanie,

      As a matter of fact, this movie comes to our city a bit late… so, not current really. But I’m glad it does so I’ve got the chance to view it on the big screen. Thor Heyerdahl’s Book The Kon-Tiki Expedition had become a survival / adventure classic of the 20th C., been translated into 70 languages and more than 50 million copies sold.


  5. The Kon-tiki expedition is one of those names I’ve heard but could not have told you the details of! So it’s lovely to learn something new here, and marvel once again at the mix of innocence, foolishness and sheer courage that our ancestors had.


    1. litlove,

      You’re spot-on in your observation of the contradictions and complexity of human nature, and ambition. I wish the movie had explored such elements.


  6. The Kon-Tiki expedition was one we learned about in school. The was an admirable endeavor, and it’s an exciting story, but I confess I’m not so impressed with the expedition since I began learning about navigational techniques used by the Polynesian Islanders. In fact, their techniques are the “ripple effect” taken to the Nth power. Much of their navigation was – and is – based on wave patterns. As the water flows around islands, it takes on recognizable patterns, and knowledge of those patterns was passed down through the generations, helping people navigate from island to island.

    If you’d like to read a short introduction to such things, there’s a nice piece here on Marshallese stickchart navigation.

    And if you’d like a recommendation for your summer reading that I thought was miles better than Kon Tiki – more varied, more interesting and certainly better written – then Paul Theroux’s “The Happy Isles of Oceania” is just the book for you. Theroux’s travel writing always is great, and what’s not to like about a contemporary who decides to kayak the Pacific?


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