Adventure stories don’t get any more timeless than this 1947 true-life adventure of a half-dozen reckless young men rafting across almost 5,000 miles of Pacific Ocean. And just as Norwegian scientist Thor Heyerdahl, author of the best-selling book, led a charmed life, so too, has this dramatization of his voyage at the helm of the Kon-Tiki. A remake of the 1951 Oscar-winning documentary (filmed onboard by Heyerdahl), it was initially envisioned by Hollywood as a seafaring Indiana Jones-style action film—after, that is, Heyerdahl finally, and reluctantly, sold the rights. After several delays and the departure of director Philip Noyce, Kon-Tiki returned to its country of origin. That the tale of the balsam raft that launched a thousand bamboo-hut cocktail lounges drifted out of the reach of tinsel town was extremely fortuitous: Norwegian directors Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg, along with cinematographer Geir Hartly Andreassen (the trio behind Max Manus, Norway’s most popular movie ever), have rebooted the journey with extraordinary realism and exceptional artistry. An Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film last February, Kon-Tiki subverts cliché at every turn, though there are sharks, and storms, and a dangerous loss of nerve by one of the crew.
The film opens with a biographical anecdote from Heyerdahl’s heedless childhood before jumping into his time in Polynesia, where the brash anthropologist (Pål Sverre Hagen) notices some striking cultural similarities between the people of Easter Island and pre-Inca Peruvians. From there, he eventually decides to prove his theory—that the long-ago mariners who populated Polynesia came from South America rather than Asia—by embarking on the same journey aboard the only type of vessel Peru had in ancient times: a balsa-log raft lashed together with hand-woven rope and steered by a single oar. After his “suicide mission” is rejected by all the exploration societies, he finds some unlikely patrons, including the U.S. armed forces. The Scandinavian crew includes a refrigerator salesman, a childhood friend, an ethnographer, a World War II saboteur—and only one sailor.
What’s most remarkable is how true to the documentary the film is, though the gorgeous cinematography, which appears more lush than most 70 MM films, is a hugely different experience from the primitive black & white of Heyerdahl’s footage. The breathtaking expanse of ocean (most of it uncharted at the time), and the primordial creatures gliding silently beneath, provide their own narrative force, with storms erupting without warning from the jewel-blue surface. When it seems utterly impossible that the balsa raft can survive the sea’s fury, Heyerdahl relies on his faith in Tiki, the ancient Peruvian sun god. (Among the filmmakers’ poetic touches is a colorful crab stowaway that serves as an animist talisman.) This is a story that had to be seen to be believed, and even in the 21st century, as the filmmakers so beautifully illustrate, Kon-Tiki expands the limits of human possibility.