'Kon-Tiki' swells with the journey of Heyerdahl
“Kon-Tiki” might as well open with “Once upon a time …” This handsome dramatization of Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl's 1947 raft voyage from Peru to Polynesia has the feel of a boy's adventure: “Across the Pacific With Six Men and a Parrot.”
Irony and complicated character development would constitute excess baggage. The film harks back to the era of “Swiss Family Robinson,” when films were like well-made hospital beds, all four corners neatly tucked. Nominated for this year's Academy Award for best foreign-language film, it was shot simultaneously in Norwegian and English versions, the form in which it's being released in the United States.
The film opens with an anxious childhood prologue on an icy lake that establishes Heyerdahl's tough luck around bodies of water. Cut ahead to the South Seas, where the adult explorer (Pal Sverre Hagen) subjects his wife, Liv (Agnes Kittelsen), to all manner of primitive tropical hardships. Heyerdahl's character is briskly sketched: intrepid verging on foolhardy and largely oblivious of the feelings of others.
Next, we leap to a glorious postwar New York City, where every conceivable sponsor turns down the chance to underwrite his proposed 4,000-mile trek on a balsa-wood flatboat. Still, Heyerdahl is determined to make his mark in anthropology. Proving that distant islands could have been settled by pre-Incan Peruvians floating west rather than Asians sailing east would be a major coup.
Directors Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg (“Max Manus”) rapidly introduce the team: Anders Baasmo Christiansen as a cowardly, inept sponsor who repeatedly endangers the mission, Gustaf Skarsgård as the token Swede. They note that publicity hound Heyerdahl recruits two radiomen to broadcast dispatches of their progress, but only one navigator.
At sea, there's a good amount of smooth sailing, guitar playing and manly joshing, with thrills and calamity just when your attention might drift. Christiansen frets that the hemp ropes holding the craft together are decomposing, a curious whale nearly upends the boat, and sharks eye the crew ravenously. The storm sequences are fantastic, but Ronning and Sandberg build the story by letting us get to know the men cramped in a small ship.
Heyerdahl is an intriguing mix of qualities, at times a dashing (if inexperienced) sea captain, then an Ahab-style obsessive. He insists that all will be well as long as they follow the methods of prehistoric mariners and trust in their Tiki good-luck charm. The fact that he's guessing at those ancient sailing and construction techniques supplies an undercurrent of angst.
After the crew's tumultuous and triumphant landing on an atoll in French Polynesia, the film concludes with an epilogue reminding us that adventures distract us from life's challenges but do not erase them. Heyerdahl wrote a best-selling account of his voyage, and his documentary became Norway's only Oscar-winning film; yet, to strong-minded Liv, he was fleeing his family duties. Most historians and anthropologists remain skeptical of the theory of east-to-west migration across the Pacific. In the film's terms, though, the adventure is achievement enough, and there's much to admire in a man who never veered from the course he set.
Colin Covert is a movie critic for the Star-Tribune (Minneapolis).
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- Pittsburgh fans pay tribute to ‘Mockingjay Part 1’
- DVD reviews: ‘22 Jump Street,’ ‘Sin City: A Dame to Kill For’ and ‘It Happened One Night’
- Friends recall director Mike Nichols as ‘greatest of the great’