One downside to our movie market being of the “minor” variety is that a movie like Kon-Tiki, nominated for a Best Foreign Film Oscar so many months ago, is only making its way to Milwaukee now. One upside to this is that a movie like Kon-Tiki is making its way to Milwaukee right now. The film is a finely composed adventure yarn that uses its computer effects as a means to enhance rather than bludgeon. In a movie weekend where you have your choice of man vs. nature parables, Kon-Tiki trumps After Earth in just about every category (save for amount of Smith family members contained therein).
Based on the journeys of Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl (this journey was recounted in a book of the same name, as well as an Oscar-winning short documentary), the film follows his attempts to finance an audacious journey. In an attempt to prove his theory that South Americans could’ve crossed the Pacific Ocean and settled in Polynesia in pre-Columbian times, Heyerdahl fashions a balsa wood raft held together only using supplies that would’ve proven available in that early era and sets course. The film is very simple in setting up this journey and then showcasing the perils met along the way, with Pål Sverre Hagen proving a charismatic lead along with the rest of his entertaining (if indistinct) crew.
But the real star is the journey, and co-directors Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg do an exemplary job of making the peril-fraught journey cinematically ravishing and emotionally engaging despite the end results being well-known to a large portion of the world (and readily available via Google for those who aren’t). Their impeccable shot compositions bring the all-encompassing isolation of the journey roaring to life, allowing for the audience to feel both awe and dread, often in the same sequence. One particular set piece, involving Heyerdahl (who, unbelievably, cannot swim) floating behind the Kon-Tiki as sharks encroach is great nail-biting cinema. It’s no surprise that Ronning and Sandberg have been tapped to direct the next installment of the Pirates of the Caribbean series; if they prove able to bring even a small amount of their straightforward style to that testament of Hollywood bloat, the film will be all the better for it.
I’m usually quite quick to bristle at hagiographical leanings in a biopic like this, but this film’s honesty with regards to the cost of Heyerdahl’s adventuring in his personal life feels like an unnecessarily sour end cap to what has been a rousing tale to that point. But it’s a minor quibble given how enthralling the film remains despite this minor misstep. In an era where our cinematic heroes must be capable of felling alien invaders and saving the Earth, it’s great to see such an exciting testament to simple human ingenuity and determination. Kon-Tiki is a piece of filmmaking that proves both through its story and filmmaking that sometimes the old ways remain the best.
Stars: Pål Sverre Hagen, Anders Baasmo Christiansen, Tobias Santelmann, Gustaf Skarsgård, Odd Magnus, Williamson, Jakob Oftebro, Agnes Kittelsen
Directed by: Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg
Written by: Petter Skavlan
Distributor: The Weinstein Company
Rating: PG-13 for a disturbing violent sequence
Running Time: 118 min
Release Date: May 31, 2013