Arts movie review

Crossing the Pacific on a raft

The legendary tale of a brave scientist is retold

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Pål Hagen plays Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl in Kon-Tiki, a film about the 1947 expedition from South America to the Polynesian islands.
Courtesy of The Weinstein Company
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A shark nears Thor’s raft Kon-Tiki in the Pacific Ocean.
Courtesy of The Weinstein Company



Directed by Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg

Starring Pål Sverre Hagen, Anders Baasmo Christiansen, and Gustaf Skarsgård

Rated PG-13

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How far would you go to prove yourself?

What would you risk on your beliefs?

In this inspiring tale, based on real events, Thor Heyerdahl (Pål Sverre Hagen) is an archaeologist with a theory: that the Polynesian Islands were first populated by South Americans, thousands of years ago. In the face of a laughing scientific community, Thor and a crew of five friends set out to cross the 4,300 miles of the unforgiving Pacific aboard a balsa wood raft built using ancient Peruvian technology. As they surrender their vessel and their lives to the currents and winds of the Pacific, Thor’s theory is their only hope of ever seeing land again.

While lacking the action heroes and sci-fi space ships of many of our favorite movies, Kon-Tiki is a thoroughly inspirational piece of cinematography. The story of Kon-Tiki has been told in many ways before — in a novel, in scientific papers, and in a 1950 documentary showing footage taken during the journey. Having read and watched all of these accounts, it is clear that none of these mediums are capable of capturing the human element of the story. In the form of a feature film, the story becomes less a tale of scientific undertaking, and more a tale of human spirit triumphing over adversity.

As an engineer, the plot particularly resonated with me — I derive great satisfaction in taking an idea from the drawing board to reality, and seeing it function as predicted. In the same vein as the film Apollo 13, this film demonstrates that in the world of science, with great risks come great rewards, if only one is daring and ingenious enough to take them.

The truth-based reality of this saga made the plot all the more gripping. Having recently watched Life of Pi, a fictional movie that also involves drifting at sea, I found the shark attacks and the raging storms in Kon-Tiki far more heart pounding. Not because the special effects were better (they weren’t, but these days they’re always pretty amazing), but because the lives at stake in Kon-Tiki were real lives. This simple fact added a level of engagement and immersion that it would be hard to achieve in any other way.

That being said, and having read the original recounts of the voyage, the film does dramatize the plot to some extent. I realize that this was probably necessary, as real life doesn’t transcribe to a particularly easy-to-follow plot line. The first scenes that set up Thor’s character are a bit forced, and once everyone is on the raft, the number of shark attacks and the size of the sharks are probably bigger than they were in reality. This is probably what it takes to engage an audience in a movie with only the natural elements as the antagonist, and besides, the journey wasn’t terribly dangerous in any case, real or fictional.

Overall, if you are looking to see something new and different, full of suspense, smart acting, and based on an inspiring true story, then I heartily recommend Kon-Tiki. Thor’s voyage has been motivating scientists and engineers for decades to put their ideas and beliefs to test, in the face of great risk and adversity. Kon-Tiki is sure to continue the trend.