Even now, 66 years later, the most famous expedition of Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl seems more than a little crazy. In 1947, in an effort to prove a scientific theory about ancient migration, Heyerdahl and a crew of five built a raft out of balsawood — a craft that could not be steered — and set off across the Pacific, starting from South America and aimed at the Polynesian islands, a distance of 5,000 miles.
Heyerdahl wrote a book about his experience and won an Academy Award in 1951 for a documentary he filmed during it, which tells us that he survived the journey. Even so, this new Kon-Tiki — which was Norway’s Academy Award nominee for best foreign language film in 2013 — is thrilling, a terrific introduction to one of the more remarkable adventures of the post-World War II world.
As played by Norwegian actor Pal Sverre Hagen, Heyerdahl is a born adventurer, the sort whose blue eyes appear soulful and earnest until you look a little deeper and spot the fanatic within. In the film, Heyerdahl falls in love with Polynesia as a young man and spends 10 years working on his thesis that the islanders there were not descended from an Asian population but a South American one. When no publisher will touch it, he comes up with a plan to prove his theory. He’ll sail across the Pacific from Peru on a raft made from precisely the same sort of native materials the ancients would have used, just to show it can be done.
Directors Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg get through the setup swiftly and send the six men out to sea, where they face the dangers you would expect: dangerous weather, inquisitive sharks, their own enforced proximity. Heyerdahl’s refusal to shore up his disintegrating raft with safer, newer material causes dissent, as does the sheer impossibility of forcing the raft in the right direction (away from the Galapagos Islands, where a maelstrom could likely destroy them all). “Have faith,” Heyerdahl urges his crew. “The problem is, I have a sextant,” replies the worried navigator.
Kon-Tiki was filmed simultaneously in English and Norwegian — the Tower Theater will show the English version — but its best moments are universal: the men’s wonder and fear as they encounter sea creatures and a terrifying sequence during a storm that seems powerful enough to shake the raft apart. At one point, the camera swoops upward, and the Kon-Tiki grows smaller, a tiny point on an endless sea. The shot continues through the clouds, to the heavens above, and then drops all the way back to the men on the raft. Their fate is still uncertain, a lovely reminder that man’s great scientific quests still matter in this unknowable universe.
Cast: Pal Sverre Hagen, Anders Baasmo Christiansen, Gustaf Skarsgard.
Directors: Joachim Ronning, Espen Sandberg.
Screenwriters: Petter Scavlan, Allan Scott.
Producer: Aage Aaberge.
Running time: 118 minutes. Disturbing violence sequence. Opens Friday May 17 In Miami-Dade only: Tower.