As a narrative feature in which inspired actors re-enact the real-life adventures of Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl on his legendary 5,000-mile voyage by raft from Peru to Polynesia in 1947, this remake of Kon-Tiki is ceaselessly enthralling. It is also a bit too long, with too many lulls between thrills devoted to near-death encounters with whales and sharks instead of character development. But never mind. As an epic of awesome achievement, it never bores.
The arduous journey across the Pacific Ocean was documented in an acclaimed film that won the Academy Award for Best Documentary in 1951 and established Heyerdahl as an international icon who remains an enigma to this day. The whole experience was based on his dogged determination to prove an unconventional theory—rejected by every publisher in New York—that 1,500 years earlier, the Polynesian islands were discovered not by Asians, as was the accepted belief of the day, but by South American Incas guided to their destination by the god Tiki. To convince the skeptics, he built his own raft without proper funds or encouragement from the scientific community, using the Incas’ original methods and primitive materials, and, ignoring the fact that he could not swim, set out on an expedition, paddling against the current with a six-man crew that included a refrigerator salesman. I found their saga the bold and invigorating stuff of those boy’s book yarns that captivate youthful new readers every decade.
In the new film, the raft, built to exact specifications, becomes a floating, drifting movie set photographed and documented by Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg (the team that turned Max Manus, the biopic about the Scandinavian World War II resistance fighter, into a cinematic blockbuster everywhere but the U.S.). Heyerdahl is played by the blond Viking Pål Sverre Hagen, described by most reviewers as the spitting image of the lithe and dashing Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia, but who looks to me more like a young, blue-eyed Max von Sydow. As the movie grows on you, so does the actor—showing the odd contrasts of his subject, childish but brash and oblivious to the needs and problems of everyone else, including the wife and son he deserted back home. The filmmakers get the facts down efficiently in an exhaustively researched panoply of details: the daunting close call with a whale the size of a tank, a man overboard whose blood attracts a school of vicious sharks, a storm that threatens to destroy the raft, the radio that doesn’t work, the accidental ingestion of their supply of shark repellent (they thought it was tomato soup), the dislodging of some of the vessel’s logs, the peril of the razor-sharp reefs that make it almost impossible to make shore after they see land. Some reviewers at the world premiere last year at the Toronto International Film Festival groused that despite the suspense, the film fails to adequately dramatize the harrowing 101-day ordeal sufficiently. Short of turning out a 101-day movie, I don’t know what else they could have done.
Kon-Tiki is a wonderful display of maritime and navigational skills. You never get the feeling there’s a companion boat nearby with a camera mounted on its hull, photographing the action. The location work in Norway, Bulgaria, Thailand and Malta is gorgeous. One of the goals of a great outdoor epic is to keep you breathless with wonder. Technically, dramatically and cinematically awesome, Kon-Tiki delivers in spades.
Written by Petter Skavlan
Directed by Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg
Starring Pål Sverre Hagen, Anders Baasmo Christiansen and Gustaf Skarsgård
Running time: 101 mins.