Thor Heyerdahl, a Norwegian ethnographer, had a radical idea. What if the Polynesian islands were settled by South Americans who'd sailed 5,000 miles west across the Pacific in hand-built rafts thousands of years ago rather than by nearby Asians?
In 1947 he put his theory to the test, building a primitive raft out of balsa wood and rope and enlisting five men to set sail with him from Peru bound for the Polynesia.
The perilous voyage, dependent only on wind power and the current, was a success and Heyerdahl, who died in 2002 at age 87, became world famous. His book about the expedition became an a bestseller and "Kon-Tiki," the filmed record that he and his crew members made about the voyage, won the Oscar for Best Documentary in 1951.
This new "Kon-Tiki" is a feature film, a rousing recounting of Heyerdahl's journey by Norwegian directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg. It begins with a young Heyerdahl (Pål Sverre Hagen) developing his theory while conducting ethnographic research on a Pacific island while living there with his wife, Liv (Agnes Kittlesen). Soon, he's in New York trying to raise money for the proposed voyage.
It's there that he teams up with Herman Watzinger (Anders Baasmo Christiansen), a Norwegian refrigerator salesman looking for an adventure. The two travel to Peru, where Heyerdahl convinces local politicians and businessman to fund the expedition by appealing to their national pride. He also recruits the rest of his crew, which includes two World War II vets, a Swedish photographer and a boyhood pal.
The journey itself is full of dangers. The raft is creaky, there are hungry sharks in the sea and they are beset by treacherous storms. Through it all, Heyerdahl remains a steady leader, growing in authority and stature even as he experiences moments of terror that are only compounded by the fact that he never learned how to swim.
The movie, an Academy Award nominee earlier this year for Best Foreign Language Film, makes for a bracing adventure tale. Portraits of Heyerdahl and his crew are deftly drawn, the thrills and scares of the voyage are clearly depicted, and the scale of the ocean versus the tiny raft is manifestly evident.
There are even moments of humor, as when the crew discovers it has inadvertently dined on shark repellant, mistaking it for dehydrated rations. It's less effective when trying to whip up a little domestic drama by showing how the voyage placed strain on Heyerdahl's marriage.
"Kon-Tiki" is a reminder that an exciting, well-made film about a daredevil explorer can turn even the most staid viewer into an armchair adventurer. The best part: no need to bring a compass or fear getting splashed, much less eaten by a shark.