J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Kon-Tiki: From Peru to Polynesia, the Hard Way

In 1947 memories of WWII were still fresh, especially in the once occupied Norway. However, the reckless courage of a Norwegian explorer would inspire not just his homeland, but generations of adventurers around the world (reportedly including American test pilots and astronauts).  Thor Heyerdahl and his crew set sail from Peru to Polynesia without any modern technology in Joachim Roenning & Espen Sandberg’s Kon-Tiki (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Although naturally restless, the time Thor Heyerdahl and his first wife Liv living among the Marquesas is quite happy.  During this period, Heyerdahl becomes convinced the South Pacific islander’s original ancestors ventured east from Latin America rather than west from Asia.  Yet, the academic establishment dismisses his theory (sadly not excluding the fuddy-duddies at the Brooklyn Museum). Having absolute conviction in his research, Heyerdahl sets out to prove it, by sailing over 4,000 nautical miles from Peru on a balsawood raft, using no modern instruments, except a radio to inform the media of their progress.

Somehow, Heyerdahl recruits a crew his countrymen for his dubious mission, including a dying-on-the-inside expat engineer and a conscience-plagued veteran of the resistance.  They also have a parrot.  The plan is pretty simple.  Launch the Kon-Tiki into the Pacific and hope the currents carry it to Polynesia.  Of course, those waters are far from empty.  Heyerdahl’s crew will contend with sharks, whales, and the greater dangers of stormy weather and dwindling supplies.

Filmed in both English and Norwegian versions, Kon-Tiki is old fashioned in a good way.  It celebrates rather than apologizes for the daring-do of Heyerdahl and his mates.  These are not average men, but they are unquestionable mortals.  Watching Roenning & Sandberg (best known for the stirring war drama Max Manus) present their courage and camaraderie without hipster irony is quite refreshing.

Kon-Tiki also looks great, particularly the shark and whale sequences.  The clarity of the underwater cinematography is quite striking as is the sense of scale.  Frankly, this is the perfect film for viewers intrigued by Life of Pi’s premise but put-off by its New Agey-ness.

It is well worth noting Kon-Tiki was produced by Jeremy Thomas, whose name in the credits means something to discerning viewers, having shepherded ambitious films like The Last Emperor, Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, and 13 Assassins through development to art house screens.  Similarly, Kon-Tiki is an international production that is large in scope. 

Nonetheless, it is easily accessible, not merely because of the English dialogue (which the Norwegian actors handle relatively well).  This is a classic sea-faring adventure, vividly rendered by a talented cast and crew.  Recommended for general audiences, particularly those who fondly remember Heyerdahl’s bestselling book and 1951 Academy Award winning documentary, Kon-Tiki opens this Friday (4/26) in New York at the Paris Theatre uptown and the Landmark Sunshine downtown.

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