Movie review: 'Kon-Tiki' is a grand adventure tale that really happened

MCCLATCHY-TRIBUNE NEWS SERVICEMay 31, 2013 

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This Oscar-nominated film beautifully recreates Thor ­Heyerdahl’s perilous voyage across the Pacific Ocean on a balsa wood raft.

  • KON-TIKI

    •••

    Rated: PG-13 for a disturbing violent sequence. Starring: Pal Sverre Hagen, Anders Baasmo Christiansen, Agnes Kittelsen, Tobias Santelmann, Jakob Oftebro, Gustaf Skarsgard, Odd Magnus Williamson. Directors: Joachim Ronning, Espen Sandberg. Running time: 118 minutes. Theater: Flicks.

"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 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.

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. Heyerdahl and his team build a raft probably unlike anything the ancient Peruvians would have known. They were off on their planned 100-day sail-and-drift to Tahiti. Or Fiji. Or somewhere near them.

"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.

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.

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.)

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