'Kon-Tiki' speeds full-sail ahead on low-tech adventure
05:00 AM, May 02, 2013
Fans of Life of Pi will surely enjoy Kon-Tiki, which features its own brand of peril at sea without a tiger aboard, of course.
Based on the true-life expedition of Norwegian adventurer Thor Heyerdahl, the film re-creates the 4,300-nautical-mile journey he took across the Pacific in 1947 on a balsa wood raft.
Norway’s entry for best foreign-language Oscar (*** out of four; rated PG-13; opens Friday in select cities) is all about proving Heyerdahl’s theory of human migration. But circling sharks, powerful storms and boat leaks loom large and menacing in this mesmerizing tale, based on the eponymous book.
Initially, Heyerdahl (Pal Sverre Hagen) can find no one to fund his expedition, which seeks to prove the South Sea Islands had been settled by South Americans about 1,500 years before. A host of magazines refuse to finance what they consider to be a crazy adventure.
But he is a man obsessed, much to the chagrin of his wife, Liv (Agnes Kittelsen), who, at home in Norway with their two children, worries about the perils of such an undertaking. Unfazed, Heyerdahl pitches his idea in New York to anyone who will listen. Few do. But a refrigerator salesman named Herman who is trained as an engineer (Anders Bassmo Christiansen) overhears Heyerdahl and signs on. Herman sets the wheels in motion for the journey, drawing support from the Peruvian government and supplies from the U.S. Navy.
Heyerdahl and Herman gather a crew and build a seaworthy raft, using only materials available to ancient indigenous peoples. Heyerdahl is a staunch believer in re-creating the journey as it was originally taken, so no nails are used in assembling the craft, just hemp ropes. He navigates from the stars and the only modern equipment he allows onboard is a radio. They set sail from Peru amid fanfare and, strangely, wearing full suits.
Heyerdahl’s bravery is all the more impressive (or foolhardy) considering that he does not swim. Well-versed in ethnography, his first inklings about Polynesians’ link to ancient Peruvians derive from evidence of fruits and carvings he encountered on an earlier trip to the islands.
His six-man crew broods, squabbles and turns green at the gills. But Heyerdahl remains calm throughout the 100-day journey.
The story’s climactic moment occurs when Herman suggests using modern equipment after a storm has caused major damage to the vessel. Heyerdahl throws those potentially life-saving implements into the ocean.
Unlike the 1950 documentary for which Heyerdahl supplied photos, this is a tale re-told with the benefit of contemporary cinematic tools, such as helicopter shots. Hagen is commanding and thoroughly convincing as the Nordic adventurer. The cinematography is stunning, as are the interchangeable tanned, blond actors who make up the crew. More development of these supporting characters might have made the story more powerful.
It’s a harrowing journey with some bona fide heart-in-mouth moments despite the fact that the outcome has been well-documented. Directors Joachim Roenning and Espen Sandberg likely heightened the dramatic elements to quasi-catastrophic levels, but it keeps viewers on the edge of their seats.
Kon-Tiki is exciting, family-friendly, old-fashioned epic fare, ideal for a hot summer day.