When it comes to celebrities, adventurers hold a rarified spot in the collective consciousness. Ironically, those that die on the job often become more famous than those who were smart—or lucky—enough to live to tell their tales. The high-seas adventure of the Kon-Tiki—first told in the official, Oscar-winning 1951 documentary Kon-Tiki and now again in a Norwegian dramatic film of the same name—effectively retells the story of Thor Heyerdahl's most famous expedition: drifting 5,000 miles across the Pacific on a balsa-wood raft to prove that it was possible for pre-Columbian South Americans to take an ocean passage to Polynesia.
During a 1937 zoological study in Fatu Hiva, Polynesia, Heyerdahl (a commanding Pål Sverre Valheim Hagen) stumbles onto the notion that Polynesia may have been populated from the east, and not the west, as per conventional wisdom. Frustrated that no one will accept his theory, due to the presumed impossibility of ocean passage, Heyerdahl hatches plans for his one-hundred-day expedition, in 1947. The film's first half-hour recounts these developments, the struggle for financing, and the assembly of Heyerdahl's crew: Swede-with-a-film-camera Bengt Danielsson (Gustaf Skarsgård), radio operators Knut Haugland (Tobias Santelmann) and Torstein Raaby (Jacob Oftebro), navigator Erik Hesselberg (Odd Magnus Williamson), and engineer-turned-fridge salesman Herman Watzinger (Anders Baasmo Christiansen)—plus a macaw named Lorita. The men assemble the good raft Kon-Tiki (named for the Incan sun god representative of the East from whence it will sail) solely using technology available to the pre-Columbians, a cause of some worry to all but the dead-set Heyerdahl.
The film gives some play to Heyerdahl's desire for fame through mass media (the film's most humorous moment comes when Heyerdahl transmits the inaccurate message "morale is high" while his crew raises eyebrows), as well as his foolhardy confidence, a trait of many famous explorers that both enabled them and threatened their survival. For the most part, though, Kon-Tiki paints Heyerdahl as a straight-ahead hero, whose self-confidence is well-earned and admirable despite blocking out his wife and family. After all, history has been the judge, right? The only problem is that history remains undecided at best and disagreeable at worst about Heyerdahl's hypothesis, a point the film fails to engage in for the sake of playing up Heyerdahl's heroism. The film also concocts certain dramas amongst the crew that have no basis in fact and alters the circumstances of an encounter with a whale shark, but in the broad strokes, Kon-Tiki is a reasonably accurate accounting of the historical event.
With a man-against-the-elements adventure like this one, the emphasis is, and should be, largely on spectacular depiction of the environment, and directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg make use of the biggest budget yet afforded to a Norwegian film to deliver splendid production values, including open-seas location shooting and convincing, judiciously applied special effects (one sequence that soars into the heavens and back is needlessly showy, but otherwise the visuals take part in the storytelling). Perhaps following the advice of that famous H.L. Mencken paraphrase “No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public," the Norwegian Film Institute (which co-financed the film) insisted upon an English-language version of the film being shot simultaneously with the Norwegian language version. True to form, the Weinstein Company domestically released the English-language version, in a cut twenty-three minutes shorter than the version nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar (happily, both versions have now been released together stateside on home video).
Anchor Bay sends Kon-Tiki home in a Blu-ray + DVD combo pack special edition that includes both the English language version of the film (96 minutes) and the Oscar nominated Norwegian language version (119 minutes). Comically, the latter is listed as a bonus feature, though any cinephile worth his or her salt will select that as the feature presentation and consider the English-language version the extra. Anyway, the picture quality here is outstanding: clean, tight, and stable, these digital-to-digital transfers feature especially piercing blues (good for both waves and Norwegian eyes), spot-on contrast, and exceptional detail and textures (even the nighttime scenes—often troublesome on home video—hold up remarkably well); the only possible issue here for hard-core videophiles is that the Norwegian language version has "burned-in" (rather than optional) subtitles for the Norwegian dialogue. The lossless Norwegian DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mixes are likewise top-notch in their fullness and placement of sound in the field, creating vivid environmental ambience and bringing plenty of oomph to the musical score.
The promotional making-of featurette "Kon-Tiki: The Incredible True Story" (25:29, SD), hosted by Extra's Maria Menounos, includes film clips, interviews, a bit of behind-the-scenes footage, and a look at a New York exhibit of a Kon-Tiki raft recreation used in the film. Interviewees include the directors and screenwriter, but also Today Show host Matt Lauer and fashion designer Diane von Fürstenberg. Go figure.
The "Visual Effects Featurette" (9:25, SD)—a.k.a. "VFX Breakdowns"—is a montage, set to the film's score, that compiles effects shots at various stages of completion.
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