Not only Norway's Oscar submission for Best Foreign Language Film but also its most expensive cinematic production to date, Kon-Tiki is a biopic about a man who, in 1947, set out to prove a crackpot theory that (spoiler alert!) turned out to be right.
The man in question is Thor Heyderdahl, an ethnographer who firmly believed that “the oceans were not barriers, but roads” for ancient explorers and was willing to sail 5,000 miles in a period-correct raft in order to show the closed-minded scientific community just how right he was. And so, just as the vikings made landfall in America long before Columbus but never received a national holiday for it, Thor hopped on his homemade vessel from Peru to Polynesia in hopes of proving that, contrary to prevailing wisdom, inhabitants of the former first settled the latter some 1,500 years earlier. (This notion has since been largely discredited, but whatever.) The film screens Wednesday at the Aero with co-directors Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg in person for a post-film discussion.
It's easy to imagine much of the preceding setup being grating for anyone who grew up hearing this story. But, unlike most biopics, Roenning and Sandberg's mostly abstains from audience-flattery and eye-winking, and Academy voters' unfamiliarity with the subject matter might actually work in the film's favor. (If it ends up winning, it'll be the first Norwegian movie to take home an Oscar since the original Kon-Tiki, a documentary Heyerdahl and his team filmed en route, scored a statuette in 1951.)
Like a lot of historical reenactments, it's often concerned with demonstrating what an exceptional fellow its protagonist was, which doesn't help convince us that he might not survive the Ahabic excursion he's imposed upon himself. Just because we already know the destination doesn't mean the journey shouldn't be as exciting as possible.
Thor is joined by four others, all of whom are noble in intent but like osprey when compared to their fearless, borderline monomaniacal leader. Hampered only slightly by the usual peripheral concerns — a worried wife and two kids on the homestead, legions of nonbelievers on either end of the ocean — Thor and his almost inexplicably loyal crew often look like sitting ducks on a piece of glorified driftwood. There's some infighting and the occasional worry about the structural integrity of the eponymous vessel, but the co-directors come across as hesitant to make the circumstances truly dire.
That we can guess the outcome of their so-crazy-it-might-work quest far more easily than they can isn't exactly conducive to high drama, but neither is it a deal-breaker. Kon-Tiki is a much tighter ship than the one it's about, with any leaks it springs along the way slowing it down but not sinking it.
The second hour consists almost entirely of the group's 100-day journey across the Pacific, and though their beards grow at roughly the same pace as their desperation, the trek is more of a visual treat than a visceral one. (The whale shark and bio-luminescent jellyfish are especially nice touches.) An exception is a scene in which one of the men brutally kills the Great White who just ate his pet parrot, thereby attracting more sharks in the process. The film could have used a bit more of this blood in the water, but its crystal-clear waves are a sight to behold nevertheless.