Few true stories have gone through as many permutations as Thor Heyerdahl’s high-seas adventure/science experiment, “Kon-Tiki.”
In 1947, Heyerdahl set out to prove that South Americans had made the long voyage to Polynesia in pre-Columbian times. He did so by making the voyage and filming it.
That shoestring-budget film version won the Academy Award for best documentary of 1951. Earlier this year, a much costlier and more sophisticated remake, also called “Kon-Tiki,” was nominated for best foreign-language film (it lost to “Amour”).
Simultaneously filmed in English and Norwegian (at the insistence of the Norwegian Film Institute, which partly financed the film), this “Kon-Tiki” is a strong dramatic re-creation, not a documentary. And it comes complete with special effects that fill in for sharks.
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It begins with a harrowing childhood prelude, with the young Heyerdahl demonstrating his fearlessness at an ice pond. As an adult (heroically played by Pål Hagen), he’s just as determined to prove that a great migration could have taken place 1,500 years ago. A six-man crew, including a refrigerator salesman, makes the journey.
The final credits crawl includes the usual disclaimer that this is a work of fiction, and that any relationship to the facts is accidental or coincidental. Almost simultaneously, we’re told the “real life” fates of Heyerdahl and his crew.
Much of the film looks as fantastic as “Life of Pi” — those glowing fish, that storm at sea — and the sometimes tense confrontations have a similar dramatic arc. But how much is fiction and how much is deliberate confusion?
John Hartl: firstname.lastname@example.org