If Thor Heyerdahl were in his prime today, doing now what he was doing in the middle part of the last century, chances are he'd be a media megastar. He'd have millions of Facebook likes and Twitter followers, his own reality show and probably a place on the cover of People magazine's "Sexiest Man Alive" issue (the dude was a hell of a looker).
Heyerdahl was a Norwegian adventurer who studied biology and geography as a youngster, and then became consumed with anthropology, specifically relating to the peoples of the Polynesian Islands. He led a series of expeditions designed to prove that ancient cultures were fully capable of trans-oceanic travel without the aid of mechanical propulsion or even the ability to steer into the wind. The voyage of the Kon-Tiki, a balsa-wood raft on which Heyerdahl and five others drifted from Peru to the Polynesian Islands in 1947, became the most famous of those expeditions. The book Heyerdahl wrote about the voyage became an international bestseller, and the feature documentary he filmed on the trip won an Academy Award in 1951.
Kon-Tiki is the feature-length, dramatic depiction of that voyage, from Norwegian directors Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg. The film, released in 2012, does a capable job in setting up Heyerdahl's seemingly boundless courage and thirst for adventure, opening with a young Thor plummeting into frigid waters while trying to retrieve a saw from a floating ice block (one of two water-related, near-death experiences he had as a child, making the fortitude required in his later expeditions even more astounding).
After a short setup that defines both Heyerdahl's absolute conviction of the voyage's feasibility and the almost universal opinion of its impossibility, the bulk of the movie, as you'd expect, is spent on the raft with Heyerdahl and his companions. The film is rife with gorgeous imagery (several scenes recall the beauty of Life of Pi), which plays nicely against the internal tension of a group of men grappling with a potential suicide mission.
The script from Petter Skavlan (the credits alone are nearly worth the price of admission, peppered with names like Anders Baasmo Christiansen, Gustaf Skarsgård and my personal favorite, Odd-Magnus Williamson) provides a healthy dose of comic relief, though some of the humor may miss its mark with American audiences. One scene, in which an expedition member frantically scatters dehydrated soup (thinking it shark repellent) into Great White-infested waters, got huge laughs from the audience at the Wilma last weekend, while another scene, in which the lone Swedish member of the group climbs into a rudimentary shark cage made of bamboo while proclaiming, "That's right, send the Swede!" fell absolutely flat. (Note: You may want to brush up on some Sven and Ole jokes before you go.)
Kon-Tiki has several significant narrative flaws. After spending a considerable amount of time establishing the relationship between Heyerdahl and his first wife, and the strain of his travels on that relationship, she basically disappears a third of the way in, never to be heard from again. And while facing the last obstacle of the journeya razor-sharp reef that threatens to kill them all mere yards from Polynesian shoresthe crew member in most need of redemption comes up with an erroneous wave formula to get them over safely, which they eventually do. But that scene never happened on the actual trip, and doesn't work all that well in the film, so why have it at all? There was plenty of existing drama in the real-life dynamic of waiting for a wave big enough to ride over the reef.
Still, this is a thoroughly enjoyable movie about a remarkable man. It's a testament to an age not so long ago when a daring journey made in the name of science could captivate the world, when a lone Norwegian could almost single-handedly redefine the scientifically accepted notions of human possibility.
Kon-Tiki continues at the Wilma Theatre.