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In 1947, six Scandinavians, led by Thor Heyerdahl, sailed 4,300 nautical miles across the Pacific in a raft to prove that pre-Columbian South Americans could have settled Polynesia. The movie Kon-Tiki (PG-13) tells the story.

Directed by Joachim Rønning and starring Pål Sverre Hagen as Heyerdahl, the film earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Film, and for good reason. Panoramic scenery, well-plotted moments of suspense, and a powerful performance from Hagen make this explorer’s tale worth watching.

It begins in Larvik, Norway, when a young Heyerdahl has a near-drowning experience. A pale, blue-eyed Thor gazes up at his father, who says, “Promise me you’ll never take a risk like that again.” The lad refuses and the film cuts to a tanned, grown-up Heyerdahl, being photographed by his young bride on a beach in Fatu Hiva.

He planned to study Polynesian civilization, “living as the natives lived,” including swimming nude with his wife—the only objectionable material in the film, other than an intense shark sequence and a few curse words.

Heyerdahl’s study of island culture and history led him to believe that Polynesia was settled from South America, not Asia, as prevailing wisdom held. The National Geographic Society and a handful of other scientific publications weren’t convinced unless he proved that sailors in balsa wood rafts could cross the Pacific Ocean using only warm trade winds and currents.

So Heyerdahl did, along with five friends, U.S. Army provisions, and plenty of faith in his theory. Heyerdahl was an atheist, but his passion for science borders on religious fervor in the film. Hagen does a superb job communicating that with a stunning minimalism that propels rather than overwhelms the story.

Scandinavian sparsity imbues the story with dry Norwegian humor and lends it a crisp air of reality, giving viewers the thrill of such a voyage from the safety of the theater.

Stephanie Perrault Stephanie is a former WORLD contributor.


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