Movie review: Epic tale 'Kon-Tiki' still stirs wonderment

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Toward the latter half of the Oscar-nominated Norwegian film "Kon-Tiki," the camera pulls away from the six central figures at sea until they are no more than tiny specks on a vast mat of blue, floating gently like the jellyfish that bob beneath their raft. As the camera continues its upward trajectory the cover of clouds opens onto the Milky Way -- Earth becomes but an orb, spinning idly in space, simultaneously at ease and purposeless.

The film focuses on Norwegian adventurer Thor Heyerdahl as he leads a small crew 4,300 nautical miles across the Pacific, from Peru to Polynesia, to prove that the islands were first settled by South Americans from the east.


3 stars = Good
Ratings explained

  • Starring:

    Pal Hagen, Anders Baasmo Christiansen, Jakob Oftebro, Tobias Santelmann, Odd-Magnus Williamson, Gustaf Skarsgard, Agnes Kittelsen.

  • Rating:

    PG-13 for a disturbing violent sequence.

Having had his theory rejected by the scientific community, Heyerdahl, played with stoic reserve by Norwegian actor Pal Hagen, decides to prove the naysayers wrong. He constructs a wooden raft, which he dubs Kon-Tiki, to make the voyage exactly as it was done more than 1,000 years ago.

He assembles a crew of five men who, as one notes, all are escaping personal demons. Otherwise, why would they drift across the Pacific, casting modern technology aside to verify one struggling scientist's much-maligned theory? It's a fair question, which each character seems to ask himself at one point or another.

Each of the characters, that is, but Heyerdahl. Although he leaves behind a wife and two young sons in Norway, Heyerdahl is possessed by a force greater than that of love or family: sheer faith in his mission. No matter the dangers, no matter how low morale gets or how much water seeps into the wooden beams on which they eat and sleep, he will always have his conviction, his belief in a cause greater than himself.

The real-life Heyerdahl was no stranger to sharing his story with wider audiences. The book he wrote about his journey sold more than 50 million copies worldwide and was translated into 70 languages. The documentary he made on the same topic won best documentary at the 1951 Academy Awards.

Yet, directors Joachim Roenning and Espen Sandberg use the existing knowledge of the subject to their advantage. There is the grandeur and excitement inherent in such epic tales of adventure (the words "You're gonna need a bigger boat" feel fitting in more than one scene, to be sure).

But the film also dives beneath the surface of the characters, asking the deeper questions of what propels men toward nature, why they risk their lives and, ultimately, how they can learn to live in peace in a universe they simply cannot understand.

Much of this remarkable story relies on telling images: the look in a very young Heyerdahl's eyes as he plunges into a frozen lake, peering into the water's icy depths; a wife's quiet sadness as she pleads with her husband to abandon his quest and come home.

And when the credits roll, and important questions have been answered, that image of the men staring at the night's stars, lingers. "Maybe nature has learned to accept us," muses Heyerdahl. Maybe. But, as the film notes, man cannot understand, nor accept, his lot in the world.

Opens today, in English, at the Manor Theater in Squirrel Hill.


Jacob Axelrad: On Twitter: @jakeaxelrad.


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