If there’s only one thing to be remembered from Kon-Tiki, an engrossing fictional recounting of Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl’s famed voyage across the Pacific on a balsa-wood raft, it’s this: The man didn’t know how to swim.
This fact — and the deep-seated fear that must have haunted him on his aquatic adventures — throws into sharp relief a derring-do that would challenge even the most seasoned ocean enthusiasts. His ambitions are captured in all their seagoing glory in this stirring drama, nominated for this year’s foreign language Oscar (though the version being released in the U.S. is in English; the filmmakers made a separate version in Norwegian).
The year is 1947 and Heyerdahl (Pal Sverre Hagen), an amateur ethnographer, is determined to prove that Polynesia was settled from the east by native South Americans, not from the west by Asians as most believe. He, and a few who trust in his vision, construct a huge raft in the style of indigenous Peruvians and set sail in an attempt to show it could be done.
Their voyage became a media sensation at the time and even led to a documentary, also called Kon-Tiki, that won the Oscar for best documentary in 1951. (In 1969, he would cross the Atlantic in a papyrus boat and that was the subject of a 1972 film, The Ra Expeditions.) But that first trip also was responsible for the breakup of Heyerdahl’s marriage and tested the loyalties of the friends who made up his crew.
In the sense that it’s about one man against the elements, Kon-Tiki echoes Life of Pi. Yet, whereas the kid at the heart of Pi is at the mercy of the wind and ocean and has no idea where he’s going, Heyerdahl wants to control both and has a firm destination in mind.
Hagen brings a palpable sense of determination to the part of Heyerdahl, but it’s no one-man show. Anders Baasmo Christiansen as engineer Herman Watzinger, a man who seems never to have set foot on a boat before, has the right amount of nervous bravado, while Gustaf Skarsgard, Jakob Oftebro and Tobias Santelmann, playing more experienced sailors, possess the laid-back intensity of men who know what they’re doing — even if, at times, they may question the man they’re doing it for.
Beautifully shot in the Maldives, Thailand and other locations by directors Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg and cinematographer Geir Hartly Andreassen, Kon-Tiki has the look and feel of a big, bracing adventure. It skirts many of the emotional issues (you’d think the father of two would have been a bit more torn apart by the collapse of his marriage) in favor of high adventure with hungry sharks and monster storms.
But then you remember that Heyerdahl didn’t know how to swim, and all those pesky little details disappear under the surging waves.
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