The color blue dominates the filmmakers' palette in Kon-Tiki: the azure expanse of open sky, the aquamarine sheen of boundless ocean, the cerulean eyes of Pl Hagen in the role of real-life adventurer Thor Heyerdahl. Geir Hartly Andreassen's beautifully saturated cinematography nourishes the senses like a photo spread in National Geographic. The semblance is no small irony, given the magazine's refusal to finance Heyerdahl's daring 1947 expedition across 4,300 miles of the Pacific on a balsa-wood raft christened Kon-Tiki. This adventure had one mission: to support his thesis about the settlement of Polynesia.
Heyerdahl and his five-man crew set sail from Peru with no surveillance and no motor to navigate the primitive vessel in the event of an emergency. Like Lindbergh's transatlantic solo flight, Heyerdahl's maritime journey captured the public's insatiable need for heroes who succeed against the odds. His published account of this bold trek remains a literary phenomenon, selling more than 50 million copies in almost 70 languages, and the documentary compiled from film footage he shot during the voyage won an Oscar in 1951. Though many anthropologists today discount Heyerdahl's theory - that South Americans from the East, not Asians from the West, populated Polynesia in the pre-Columbian era - the audacity of his undertaking has cemented his place in modern history.
The new narrative feature film Kon-Tiki revives the Heyerdahl mythos with mixed results. It renders its 20th-century explorer as an obsessed but genial everyman who seldom loses his composure. With each destructive squall and circling shark, Heyerdahl's confidence drifts into self-doubt, but it never falters. It's this resolve that keeps both the raft and the film on course. Yet Heyerdahl doesn't seem like the kind of man who'd achieve something so grand. Where is the charisma that convinced others to voluntarily participate in a potential suicide mission, or the megalomania that compelled him to risk everything, including his marriage and family, for an ideal?
Luckily, this flaw in character development doesn't shipwreck Kon-Tiki. Although a Norwegian production, it has a muted Hollywood sensibility that keeps things real. It's an absorbing and often lyrical piece of storytelling that doesn't over-embellish the facts or rely on a pumped-up score or whiplash editing to heighten the dramatic action. The occasional (and welcome) appearance of a stowaway crab adopted by Heyerdahl as the boat's mascot is as emotionally manipulative as the film gets. In setting sail on his famed raft, Heyerdahl saw the Pacific Ocean as a pathway rather than a barrier. It's a Zen-like philosophy that befits a lovely movie.