Benefiting as much from a post-awards season run as an official Academy Award Nominee for Best Foreign Language Film, as it likely did prior to earning that lofty mark with the always-attractive "Based on the Incredible True Story" tag slapped just beneath its title, 'Kon-Tiki' is the rare fictionalized version of a real excursion that has an actual Academy Award-winning documentary made several decades prior, to help verify its account.
'Kon-Tiki' recounts the tale of the 1947 journey undertaken by Norwegian scientist/explorer Thor Heyerdahl (Pål Sverre Hagen) and his five crew members, after they constructed a raft made of balsa wood and sailed (drifted) from Peru to Polynesia in an effort to confirm Heyerdahl's hypothesis that the Polynesian Islands could have been settled centuries earlier by South Americans and not Asians, as was the more widely believed theory on the subject at the time. But don't let the academic leanings, real-life story and award-nominated pedigree dissuade you from having an interest in the film; this is a classic, exhilarating adventure movie at heart, an aspect co-directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg clearly grasped early on (and one that landed them the role as directors of the upcoming 'Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales'), as the film takes a suitably buoyant, almost gleeful approach to the narrative that keeps the story of a 101-day, roughly 5,000-mile-long journey from becoming another bloated, (and in this case) sentimentally waterlogged entry in the "true story" subgenre of Oscar-bait films.
While the movie is vibrant in tone and takes a certain light stance with regard to its structure, the sacrifice for this buoyancy, then, is in the oftentimes over-simplified nature of the narrative and the rather stock characterization that is offered with regard to the depiction of the real-life individuals who risked their lives to join Heyerdahl on his quest. Expediency seems to be the real culprit here, though, as 'Kon-Tiki' is tasked with setting up Heyerdahl's history with exploration, apparent love of adventure (read: danger) and the impetus from which his South American hypothesis was formed. The latter, of course, is of utmost importance, and takes up a good chunk of the early part of the film, and also focuses on Heyerdahl's relationship with his increasingly marginalized wife Liv (Agnes Kittelsen), who at first acts primarily as a plot device – planting the seeds of inspiration in Thor's mind by commenting on how strong the ocean's current is, while also informing the audience of her husbands inability to swim – and later becomes little more than a footnote and bit of real-life angst to temper the film's unsurprisingly uplifting denouement.
In that regard, the film is very much centered on Hagen's depiction of Heyerdahl, and rightly so – Heyerdahl, after all, would go on to win the Academy Award for his 1950 documentary of the same name – but 'Kon-Tiki' goes to great lengths to surround its ostensible protagonist with some characters that, in spite of being based on real-life individuals, tend to have a larger-than-life quality about them. On one hand, this aspect certainly makes a great deal of sense: Who in their right mind would agree to such a lengthy and risky excursion, but those for whom life is a series of grand adventures waiting to happen? And, for better or worse, Heyerdahl's crew – made up of portly refrigerator salesman/engineer Herman Watzinger (Anders Baasmo Christiansen), military intelligence officer Knut Haugland (Tobias Santelman), erudite Swede Bengt Danielsson (Gustaf Skarsgård – star of 'Vikings' and brother to Alexander 'True Blood' Skarsgård), consummate sailor Erik Hesselberg (Odd-Magnus Williamson) and, finally, the roguishly good-looking Torstein Raaby (Jakob Oftebro) – make that journey with only the slightest hint of trepidation, which primarily manifests once the enormous and terrifying creatures of the sea begin to flock around and show great interest in the Kon-Tiki.
These encounters are of primary concern to the narrative, as the screenplay strives to maintain interest in the lengthy journey and, more importantly, allow the filmmakers to demonstrate their impressive prowess with computer-generated effects that work on much the same level of photorealism and heightened reality as the extensive effects work in Ang Lee's Oscar-winning film 'Life of Pi.' Though 'Kon-Tiki' isn't searching for the same allegorical significance as Lee's film, it does, at times feel as though Rønning and Sandberg were applying a more superficial layer of fantasy to the proceedings that, while gorgeous to look at and effective in a purely visceral sense, failed to add much substance to the story in the way, say, a better understanding of the characters' motivations or reactions to their circumstances might have.
But that's the fence that 'Kon-Tiki' finds itself straddling for much of its runtime: the one separating knowing your character and experiencing the adventure – despite how inexorably entwined the two are in this particular case. So, how can this gorgeous looking film improve upon the real-life tale that was already literally documented by the men involved? The answer, unsurprisingly, then, is: It can't, so it doesn't try. And that, however strange it may sound, is actually the right answer. This is ostensibly the Cliffs Notes version of Heyerdahl's expedition; one that highlights the sheer magnitude of the quest undertaken by him and his crew by attempting to illustrate it in the most attractive and luminous way possible. This is the story of a group of men pursuing personal relevance through the completion of an enormous undertaking. That we don't quite know what, specifically, it is these men are searching for is secondary to the fact that we understand the duality of their journey.
In that sense, as a film, 'Kon-Tiki' is very similar; it considers the thrill of a surface-deep adventure an instrument to the unspoken understanding and analysis of the purpose or meaning these individuals were seeking. It may have skimped on things like character development and motivation, but in the end, perhaps the movie is suggesting the message is in the undertaking?
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Kon-Tiki' comes as a 50GB Blu-ray + DVD combo from Anchor Bay, in the standard two-disc keepcase. The film will auto play several previews for upcoming theatrical and home video releases, but all previews can be skipped to jump directly to the disc's top menu.
The 1080p AVC/MPEG-4 transfer on 'Kon-Tiki' is simply beautiful. The image here is one of the best I've seen on any release so far this year; it's one that manages to highlight the sumptuous cinematography of Greir Hartley Andreassen, while simultaneously evoking the notion that this fantastic journey is (even with the more fantastical elements) something that actually took place. It is a thin line that is drawn between reality and fiction here, and the manner in which the image is presented plays a key role in preventing the film from becoming too extreme on one side or the other.
First and foremost, the image is incredibly bright, vivid, and colorful; it is constantly highlighting the gorgeous expanse of the ocean and the brilliant life teeming within its depths – even when that life is hardwired to munch on a human being's fleshy goodness. Even when the story is not depicting life on a wooden raft, the image is colorful and exuberant in its presentation. The directors play with CGI in creative ways, lending a nostalgic patina of optimism to late-'40s New York City that's glossy in much the same way Baz Luhrmann's 'The Great Gatsby' is, but without feeling so shamelessly hollow. Similarly, colors look as though their tones are cranked up as high as they can go without looking oversaturated or cartoony.
Fine detail and contrast levels are also very high. Heyerdahl and his crew all become weathered and their skin brilliantly bronzed as their journey continues; little details like freckles underneath their eyes and on their shoulders are noticeable even in wide-angle shots and adds a certain level of realism to the film. Elsewhere, the contrast manages to convey the omnipresent searing sunlight bouncing off the ocean's surface like some vast mirror without the image looking bleached or washed out. Conversely, black levels are incredibly strong and present a deep, rich darkness to shadows and nighttime scenes without losing an ounce of detail in the image.
Overall, this is an excellent looking transfer that will make viewing this fun adventure film all the more exciting.
Take note, sound engineers: The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track contained on 'Kon-Tiki' is, for lack of a better term, practically perfect. This audio mix is precisely how a movie of this or any caliber should sound in the high-definition arena and this very well may be as close to reference quality audio as you might get.
The audio mix here is strong and robust without ever feeling the need to overpower the viewer with sound effects or musical score. The balance between the dialogue and other effects is superb; actor's voices are clearly heard – even at low volume levels – and manage to share the same space as an all-pervading lapping of the ocean's waves or other sounds without overshadowing or submitting to another element. In that regard, the atmospheric effects are quite astonishing, as the rear and front channels work overtime to immerse the viewer in a world surrounded by so much water you'll swear Kevin Costner is sitting on the couch next to you. In addition, LFE effects are strong, but again, not overbearing, and really add an extra layer of depth to the audio that is remarkable.
Most importantly, however, is the way in which the audio mix conveys power and emotion without over or under doing it. This movie was played at relatively low volume levels and I was amazed at the amount and quality of sound emanating from the speakers. When so many other releases fail to properly balance the multiple elements of an audio mix – i.e., dialogue and score can't ever seem to get on the same page – the sound on 'Kon-Tiki' should be considered required listening for anyone whose job it is to oversee the audio on Blu-ray releases.
'Kon-Tiki' is a satisfying piece of entertainment that uses breathtaking visual imagery and a clever use of CGI to make the real-life journey of the Kon-Tiki expedition feel like a fantastical journey and triumph of the human spirit. And while the film comes up a bit short on characterization and motivation, or in building real levels of suspense or excitement, this true tale always manages to entertain – albeit on the easiest of terms. However, with phenomenal picture and sound, plus some nice extras, this film comes recommended.