Norwegian anthropologist Thor Heyerdahl’s 1947 raft trip from Peru to Polynesia was punctuated by dangers, yet most of its 101 days were spent in the doldrums. “Kon-Tiki,” the earnest new movie about the expedition, captures that balance all too well.
Thor (pronounced “tore”) was living in French Polynesia in the 1930s when his wife had an epiphany. Liv (Agnes Kittelsen) suggested that the islands must have been populated by immigrants from South America rather than Asia, as was commonly believed.
Obsessed with this idea, Thor built a balsa-wood raft with 1,500-year-old techniques. He and five Nordic cohorts let the South Equatorial Current carry the Kon-Tiki, named for an Incan god, toward their destination. The 5,000-mile quest succeeded, although it didn’t change most scholars’ analysis of how Polynesia was settled.
As portrayed by Pal Sverre Hagen, Thor is a floppy-haired, tightly wound charmer, more professor than outdoorsman. He has a few failings as a nautical adventurer, notably an inability to swim. But his dedication to his thesis is absolute, leading to occasional moments when he seems, well, nuts.
Thor and his crew carry a few items the pre-Columbians lacked, including a sextant, a radio and a typewriter, as well as dehydrated rations from the U.S. Navy. But the captain would not allow any deviation from his idea of an ancient craft. When Herman (Anders Baasmo Christiansen) proposes replacing ropes with metal cables, Thor does not react well.
The expedition’s list of perils is short: storm, reef, whale and shark (more than one, and more than once). The scenes in which the crew faces these hazards are well-staged, without much apparent computer-generated imagery; one is exceedingly, and realistically, bloody. But most of the movie drifts at the same speed as the raft.
The trip might have been less languid if directors Joachim Roenning and Espen Sandberg and screenwriter Petter Skavlan had drawn the supporting characters more fully. But most have just one character trait apiece, and as their beards get bushier, the men become almost indistinguishable (except for Herman, who’s pudgy).
Perhaps the sailors would be more distinct if the actors spoke with their original voices. “Kon-Tiki,” an also-ran for the 2013 best foreign-language film Oscar, was initially filmed in Norwegian. But for the U.S. release, scenes were either reshot or dubbed into English (save for a few lines of French).
Norway did pick up an Oscar in 1951 — for “Kon-Tiki,” Heyerdahl’s black-and-white documentary about the journey. That film lacks the production values of the elegantly photographed new fictionalization, but it’s more raw and real.
Jenkins is a freelance writer.
PG-13. At Landmark’s Bethesda Row Cinema. Contains a disturbing, violent sequence.