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Kon-Tiki Is a Grand Story, Told Again

Would you sign on for three months in shark-infested waters on a tippy raft under a captain who can't swim? The shrewdest joke in Kon-Tiki's surefire story — about Thor Heyerdahl's 4,000-mile South Pacific expedition to prove that ocean-faring Incans could have settled Tahiti — is that practically every character Heyerdahl meets can't wait to join his suicide trip. In the lead role, Pål Sverre Hagen is charismatic in an undemonstrative, Norwegian sort of way, but not that much.

Kon-Tiki has already achieved an unprecedented distinction: Oscar nominations in two languages, in two genres, 60 years apart, before it even comes out. The 1951 documentary, shot by Heyerdahl and his five shipmates, even won.

Today, codirectors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg have scared up the kroner to make a handsome Norwegian feature about Heyerdahl's 1947 journey — and rather than risk a redubbing, they shot this English-language fraternal twin at the same time, with the same actors. The Norwegian version played just long enough to snag a nomination for best foreign-language film. Now, its English cognate is washing up stateside. The 60-year odyssey makes Heyerdahl's actual trip look like a milk run.

These linguistic challenges probably account for the "script consultant" credit accorded Allan Scott. He's the brilliant screenwriter who — in between CEO duties for his family's storied Macallan whisky distillery — found time to script both the sex-charged thriller Don't Look Now (1973) and The Witches (1990), an all-ages classic. Scott's recurrent themes of marital tension and watery jeopardy put in appearances here — including a moment of the young Heyerdahl face-down in a pond that's a straight steal from Don't Look Now — but he can only do so much with Petter Skavlan's sturdy but taciturn underlying script.

As passive drift gives way to seasonal currents, Kon-Tiki works up a nice head of storytelling steam. Still, exciting as these sea lanes are, we've sailed them before. Anybody who owed as much to a loan shark as these filmmakers owe to Steven Spielberg would be dead by now. Tick 'em off as they go by: the shooting star against an inky sky, the claustrophobic shark cage, plus more bristling dorsal fins than your average stegosaurus.

Without conspicuously meaning to, Kon-Tiki raises a question that remains ticklish among explorers and filmmakers: Who, finally, gets the credit? Kon-Tiki opens with a full-face shot of the young, adventuresome Heyerdahl striding toward the camera across a frozen lake, outpacing a dozen classmates all shouting at him to turn back before he drowns his foolish self. It ends with almost the same shot, only now he's a full-grown, shaggy hero galumphing proudly ashore in Polynesia — with the sailors who risked their lives to help shoot his soon-to-be-famous documentary staggering along behind. Does heroism always have to mean hogging the frame once within reach of the loving cup? As usual, posterity gets the last laugh: Most anthropologists today think Heyerdahl was wrong about the settlement of Polynesia. Won an Oscar, though.

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David Kipen

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