Photo Courtesy of Weinstein Co.
Thor Heyerdahl made history by traveling nearly 5,000 miles on a balsa-wood raft in 1947. His book about the adventure sold more than 50 million copies worldwide, and his subsequent 1951 documentary earned an Oscar. Now two Norwegian filmmakers have created a compelling new drama about the voyage of Kon-Tiki.

Heyerdahl, as played by Pål Hagen, is a single-minded explorer and scientist who falls in love with Polynesia, and becomes convinced that it was discovered by South Americans who sailed there on the currents, following the sun. There’s just one problem: no one in the scientific community believes him. Undaunted, he gathers a disparate group to join him and sets sail from Peru, recreating the voyage of the sun god Tiki, on a raft built just like the one used 1,500 years ago.

Not every crew member is experienced, and the radio refuses to work; one conflict builds on another. The sailors put their faith in Heyerdahl’s belief  that no steering will be necessary to reach their destination. They also pray that they won’t be eaten by sharks along the way.

Pål Hagen-Kon-Tiki-485
Photo Courtesy of Weinstein Co.

Hagen is completely believable as Heyerdahl, a man obsessed, and directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg capture every emotion of this perilous journey, as recounted in Petter Skavlan’s screenplay. The feeling of isolation on the open sea recalls Life of Pi, although this journey is literal, not metaphysical. As in Pi, however, the visual effects are seamless and, in one key scene, awe-inspiring—all the more impressive for having been executed on a modest budget. (The early scenes set in New York City are less convincing, but they are merely a preamble to the adventure at sea.) What’s more, the directors were forced to shoot every scene with dialogue twice, once in Norwegian, once in English.

But all that really matters is the finished product. Kon-Tiki is a robust adventure yarn and a highly entertaining film.

Incidentally, Thor Heyerdahl’s grandson built a replica raft and made the journey from Peru to Polynesia in 2006: that’s the vessel the filmmakers used for their movie. It also carried them to their world premiere at the new waterside Opera House in Oslo…and the recent debut in Manhattan.