There was a time when virtually everyone knew the story of modern-day explorer Thor Heyerdahl and his balsawood raft, Kon-Tiki. In 1947, Norwegian ethnographer Heyerdahl decided the only way to prove his theory — that the islands of Polynesia were actually “settled” centuries before by South Americans to the East instead of Asians to the West — was to build a seagoing vessel in the ancient style from the same materials and make the 5,000-mile journey from Peru himself with a small crew of death-defying sailors. He brought along a radio for a little protection and to keep a rapt world apprised of his adventures, but no other modern advantages were allowed. He used currents and wind for navigation and propulsion on what would be a 101-day trip. Heyerdahl’s book on the excursion sold 50 million copies in 70 languages, and the film he started shooting on the high seas won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature in 1951.
Kids no longer devour Heyerdahl’s book as they did for two or three decades after the journey, and his name is far from a household word. One reason for the legend’s decline was Heyerdahl’s refusal to allow a narrative film based on his incredible story. Kon-Tiki screenwriter Petter Scavlan managed to win over Heyerdahl about a year before the explorer’s death in 2002, earning both his blessings and his cooperation on this Norwegian-made feature. Nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar last year (even though it was shot simultaneously in both English and Norwegian), Kon-Tiki recalls the kind of rousing, straightforward adventure movie Hollywood used to make in bunches. Though perhaps a bit too polished and conventional for its own good, Kon-Tiki offers welcome relief from the high-tech mayhem that typically drives today’s summer movies.
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At the center of practically every scene is blond and blue-eyed Norwegian actor Pål Sverre Valheim Hagen as Heyerdahl, who alternately recalls Let’s Dance—era David Bowie and Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia. The burden of a shooting a film twice in different languages is significant, and you sometimes suspect that the best take of a particular scene happened in Norwegian. But that doesn’t take anything away from the gorgeous ocean-bound cinematography, captured on location in six countries from Thailand to the Maldives. The movie peaks late with an extraordinary overhead shot of the raft on the ocean that climbs until it reaches outer space and finds a single, telling image of the moon before coming back down to earth. It’s a beautiful moment, and one intended to connect Heyerdahl’s era-capping explorations with those that would soon follow in the form of spaceflight. Maybe the kids will find their way back to Heyerdahl after all.
Kon-Tiki begins ans exclusive one-week run today at Chalmette Movies.