Would you sign on for three months in shark-infested waters on a tippy raft under a captain who can't swim? The shrewdest joke in Kon-Tiki's surefire story — about Thor Heyerdahl's 4,000-mile South Pacific expedition to prove that ocean-faring Incans could have settled Tahiti — is that practically every character Heyerdahl meets can't wait to join his suicide trip. In the lead role, Pål Sverre Hagen is charismatic in an undemonstrative, Norwegian sort of way, but not that much.
The story of Kon-Tiki has already achieved an unprecedented distinction: Oscar nominations in two different languages, in two different genres, seven decades apart. The 1951 documentary, shot by Heyerdahl and his five shipmates, actually won.
Today, co-directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg have scared up the kroner to make a handsome Norwegian feature about Heyerdahl's 1947 journey — and to secure international financing, they shot this English-language fraternal twin at the same time, with the same actors. Last year the Norwegian version played here just long enough to snag an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign-Language Film. Now its English cognate is washing up stateside. The whole Kon-Tiki odyssey, from Heyerdahl's quixotic quest all the way up to the new movie, makes his original expedition look like a milk run.
These linguistic challenges probably account for the "script consultant" credit accorded Allan Scott. He's the brilliant screenwriter who — in between CEO duties for his family's storied Macallan whisky distillery — found time to script both the sex-charged thriller Don't Look Now (1973) and The Witches (1990), an all-ages classic. Scott's recurrent themes of marital tension and watery jeopardy put in appearances here — including a moment of the young Heyerdahl face-down in a pond that's a straight steal from Don't Look Now — but he can do only so much with Petter Skavlan's sturdy but taciturn, underlying script.
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As passive drift gives way to seasonal currents, Kon-Tiki works up a nice head of storytelling steam. Still, exciting as they are, we've sailed these sea lanes before. Anybody who owed as much to a loan shark as these filmmakers owe to Steven Spielberg would be dead by now. Tick 'em off as they go by: the shooting star against an inky sky, the claustrophobic shark cage, plus more bristling dorsal fins than your average stegosaurus.
Without conspicuously meaning to, Kon-Tiki raises a question that remains ticklish among explorers and filmmakers both: Who, finally, gets the credit? Kon-Tiki opens with a full-face shot of the young, adventurous Heyerdahl striding toward the camera across a frozen lake, outpacing a dozen classmates all shouting at him to turn back before he drowns his fool self. It ends with almost the same shot, only now he's a full-grown, shaggy hero galumphing proudly ashore in Polynesia — with the sailors who risked their lives to help shoot his soon-to-be-famous documentary staggering along behind. Does heroism always have to mean hogging the frame once within reach of the loving cup?
As usual, posterity gets the last laugh: Most anthropologists today think Heyerdahl was wrong about the settlement of Polynesia. Won an Oscar, though.
KON-TIKI | Directed by Joachim Rønning & Espen Sandberg | Written by Petter Skavlan | The Weinstein Company | Landmark