Film Review by Kam Williams
At the beginning of the 20th Century, the conventional wisdom was that Polynesia had been settled by Asians arriving from the Far East. But it’s one thing for a pompous professor to simply sit in an ivory tower and speculate about who might have discovered the island group some 1,500 years ago, and quite another to go about proving a theory correct by attempting to replicate the putative pioneers’ perilous feat.
While doing research in the Marquesas on the Isle of Fatu Hiva in the mid-Thirties, a Norwegian anthropologist named Thor Heyerdahl (Pal Sverre Hagen) came up with a novel idea about the roots of the natives. After studying the local fauna and flora, watching the flow of the tides, and listening to aborigine folklore about their ancestors’ arduous trek towards the setting sun, he reasoned that the region must have been settled by tribes migrating there from South America.
Then, when his iconoclastic notion was roundly ridiculed by scholarly colleagues back in academia, Thor decided to prove his detractors wrong by mounting a 5,000-mile expedition from Peru to Polynesia. And although he knew nothing about sailing and couldn’t even swim, he did have the sense to assemble a team capable of assisting him in the dangerous endeavor.
The plan was to build a balsa wood raft identical to the type used by indigenous people in pre-Columbian times, painstakingly following their methods of construction down to the smallest detail. And since they would not be able to steer this vessel christened the Kon-Tiki, Thor estimated it would take about three months for the currents and winds to take them to their destination.
His intrepid crew was comprised of four fellow Norwegians and a Swede, including childhood friend, Erik Hesselberg (Odd Magnus Williamson), the navigator; radioman Knut Haugland (Tobias Santelmann), a decorated World War II veteran; Torstein Raaby (Jakob Oftebro), another radio expert; Herman Watzinger (Anders Baasmo Christiansen), an engineer; and Bengt Danielsson (Gustaf Skarsgard), the Swedish steward.
Co-directed by Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg, Kon-Tiki faithfully chronicles their historic, transoceanic voyage. Despite the fact that most of the picture’s dialogue is English, it somehow earned a well-deserved Oscar nomination in the Best Foreign Language Film category earlier this year.
The men set sail in the spring of 1947, encountering storms, shark attacks, ship rot, insubordination and a host of other challenges en route. The deliberately-paced production repeatedly harks back to a bygone era when much of the Earth’s surface was yet to be explored.
Replete with breathtaking Pacific panoramas shot on location, Kon-Tiki is worth watching for the captivating visuals alone. However, the storytelling is solid, too, with all adding up to a fitting tribute to the enviable exploits of the legendary Thor Heyerdahl.
Excellent (4 stars)
Rated PG-13 for violence
In English, Norwegian, Swedish and French with subtitles
Running time: 118 minutes
Distributor: The Weinstein Company
To see a trailer for Kon-Tiki, visit
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