In 1951, Kon-Tiki, a documentary about an extraordinary 4,000-mile sea voyage, won the Oscar for Best Documentary. In 2012, Norwegian directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg made Kon-Tiki into a narrative film — and, really, it should have won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film.
It was a finalist, but with the judges slobbering over Amour, also a long shot. Which is too bad, because it is a beautiful film; even better and, oddly, more realistic and truthful than the original documentary about the very same crazy voyage.
In 1947, Thor Heyerdahl set out to prove a theory that the Polynesian Islands were settled by people from South America. By floating 101 days for 4,000 miles — no motor, negligible radio technology, only a bed sheet of a sail and 45-foot-long balsa wood logs strapped together — Heyerdahl reversed the prevailing theories about Pacific Ocean migration.
It is the stuff of adolescent fantasy and man-boy dreams, touching both on visceral high-seas adventure and high-minded scientific theory. The resulting book chronicling the adventure sold 47 million copies. This contemporary dramatization of that journey more than does the true-life story justice; it is a gripping film, aptly depicting the day-in, day-out drama and tedium without too much melodrama.
Without doubt, Heyerdahl was a bold and brave explorer, but he was equally arrogant and self-centered; in documentary and the book, these darker shadows of his personality were, at best, subtext. The contemporary film, however, fills the screen with a more complete character analysis, both heart-wrenchingly painful with the cost to his land-locked family and wryly humorous in how he overlooked logic in the pursuit of grandeur. Like, oh, he didn't know how to swim.
Certainly Heyerdahl was a showman and a master publicist. And, as if taking a page from his playbook, the producers were equally and admirably crafty. Originally, they wanted their film to be a big Hollywood production. For 16 years, they tried to find Stateside funding before finally taking what should have been a first, natural step: turning to financiers and directors in Norway, where Heyerdahl is a cult figure with an entire museum dedicated to him in Oslo.
But even then, the producers did not want the film to be some obscure foreign film, and made a unique decision: They filmed duplicate scenes both in English and Norwegian.
The film originally debuted in its native Norwegian tongue at the Toronto Film Festival — and, at the time, was passed over by most distributors. When it was screened without subtitles and in English a couple months later, those same distributors (namely Weinstein Co.) snapped up North American distribution rights and are now pushing its major release.
Kon-Tiki is an engaging and fun film, as much a road (er, sea) trip story as it is a subtle examination of male relationships. Strangely it is also a companion piece to last year's Life of Pi. Like Ang Lee's Oscar winner, Kon-Tiki is a beautiful movie, with sweeping panoramas and filled with flying fish, gnashing sharks and biblical thunderstorms. It's also marked with the same battles over doubt and faith, and strain on personal relationship.
Even though Kon-Tiki failed to win the Oscar for Best Foreign Film last year, it's well worth the trip to see on the big screen. Hell, Heyerdahl traveled 4,000 miles to entertain you; you may as well travel the few blocks on his behalf.