“Kon-Tiki” needed to be made for the simple reason that the world needs to remember that real scientific adventure existed long before George Lucas dreamed up Indiana Jones. The 60-some years that have passed since Thor Heyerdahl & Co. set out to prove a far-out theory of human migration by floating across the Pacific on a balsa wood raft, risking life, limb and reputation on that theory, have let us forget there were once men bold enough to gamble with their lives to prove a scientific point.
And the fact that DNA testing has almost entirely deflated Heyerdahl’s big idea — that the stone idols of South America look an awful lot like ones in the South Pacific, and that ancient Peruvians must have migrated west and settled Polynesia — does nothing to diminish what he and five others attempted and then proved could be done.
“Kon-Tiki” is an old-fashioned intimate epic that follows Heyerdahl from childhood — he never learned to swim, even after falling through the ice on a frozen lake — into science and the South Pacific, where years of study convinced him that religion, fruits and stone carvings he saw there could only have migrated from the Andes, and not from the West and north, from Asia.
We follow him as he pursues backing for his expedition, which much have seemed like the height of folly in the year just after the calamity of World War II. Thor (Pal Sverre Hagen) may have the looks of a Nordic god and the hair of a Nordic supermodel — but America wasn’t buying.
National Geographic turns him down. Sailors with real-life raft experience chew him out for his naivete.
But he assembles a crew, starting with the doughy engineer turned refrigerator salesman Herman (Anders Baasmo Christiansen). He gets together a little money, and others follow — six men, in all. Leaving his wife (Agnes Kittelsen) behind in Lillehammer, Heyerdahl and his team build a raft probably unlike anything the ancient Peruvians would have known. With a little nudge from the flattered Peruvian government and surplus supplies from the U.S. Navy, they were off on their planned 100-day sail-and-drift to Tahiti. Or Fiji. Or somewhere near them.
The raft is roomier than you’d expect, but tensions rise as they drift, for weeks, in the wrong direction. The foreshadowing is obvious — a warning that “You fall overboard, you STAY overboard,” leads to that first tumble into the sea.
Sharks circle them, and they face the terrors of a storm at sea on a vessel they cannot steer.
“We’ll be fine. Have faith,” is all Heyerdahl can offer with each new crisis — balsa wood absorbs water, rope-rigged rafts work themselves apart over time.
“Oh, I have faith,” the navigator gripes. “Problem is, I also have a sextant.”
They shot a documentary about the voyage that won an Oscar back in 1950, and scenes here recreate that. But the filmmakers use wonderful helicopter shots that emphasize the loneliness of their quest. Even if the balky radio works, who could come to their rescue in 5,000 miles of empty ocean?
The film’s Heyerdahl comes off as almost fanatically committed to his theory, but doesn’t capture the self-promoter he became during this odyssey. More Quixotic charisma was needed, and a better sense of how the world caught Kon-Tiki fever during and after the voyage.
But “Kon-Tiki” is a grand old-school yarn with enough drama and dramatic incidents to make even Indiana Jones envious at the adventure of it all.
(An Oscar nominee for best foreign language film, the shorter English-language version — they shot the scenes first in Norwegian, then in English — is the “Kon-Tiki” being shown widely in North America.)
Cast: Pal Sverre Hagen, Anders Baasmo Christiansen, Agnes Kittelsen, Tobias Santelmann, Jakob Oftebro, Gustaf Skarsgard, Odd Magnus Williamson.
Directed by Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg, written by Petter Skavlan and Allan Scott. A Weinstein Co. release.
Running time: 1:42
MPAA rating: PG-13 for a disturbing violent sequence