The problem with most action/adventure movies is that the plot seems like an afterthought, an excuse to stitch one overblown spectacle into the next. And I get it; I enjoy car chases, tanker explosions and muscly hemen (or monsters and giant robots, as the case may be) beating each other to a pulp, but there’s a way to do this without insulting my intelligence. “Raiders of the Lost Ark” got it right; so did “Die Hard,” “The Matrix” and last year’s superb “Dredd 3D.” Give me a character I can relate to, beat the hell out of him for a couple hours and maybe let him win — is that too much to ask for?
You can add a new title to the list of well-crafted, cerebral thrill rides: “Kon- Tiki.” Although some folks may be hardpressed to put this in the same genre as an entry in the “Fast & Furious” or “Bourne” canons, the swashbuckling ethos and skyhigh stakes make this a pulse-pounder for the thinking man. And how much awesomer is it that it’s based on a true story?
“Kon-Tiki” is the dramatization the voyage of real-life ethnographer/professional adventurer Thor Heyerdahl (Pål Sverre Hagen), who theorized that the Polynesian islands weren’t settled by Asians, but by ancient Peruvians who drifted there on rudimentary rafts. It was a tough sell to the scientific community and publications of his day, so Heyerdahl did the only thing he could think of to test his idea: in 1947, he set sail on the South Pacific on a balsa wood vessel constructed using 1,500-yearold methods and materials.
The bulk of the film is just Heyerdahl and his five-man crew attempting to survive their floating self-maroonment and their unraveling psyches on the three-monthplus voyage. But let’s be clear: We are talking about a motor-less, nigh un-steerable craft traveling about than the distance from Lansing to Moscow at an average speed of 1.5 knots, or about 1.75 miles an hour — it’s like the anti-“Speed.” It’s easy to see why some folks might be skeptical.
But don’t mistake the lackadaisical momentum for a lack of tension, excitement or drama. Nearly every scene is imbued with the inherent danger of being adrift on the ocean surrounded by man-eating sharks and previously unobserved leviathans, where even the mildest storm represents a possible endgame. This isn’t just a physical struggle; it’s mental combat with the elements.
When’s the last time you stared down nature and dared it to blink?
More than anything, Hagen’s hypnotic turn as Heyerdahl is what sells this movie. He’s beyond confident, beyond cocky, beyond egotistical in his devotion to his theory, but at no point is he anything close to offputting. Whenever he’s challenged, whether it’s by a fellow academic or a scraggly radio operator, he gets this devilish gleam in his eye that says: “Doubt if you must, but I will be proved right.” And dammit if he isn’t.
There’s an incredible shot near the end of the film that puts the crew in an appropriate context for mankind’s place in the world and simultaneously sums up the human thirst for knowledge, exploration and adventure. As the six men stare at the night sky, the camera slowly pulls out to reveal a macro shot of the Earth, moon suspended just over the horizon; the shot then zooms back down to the planet’s surface to find the men still floating, silently wondering whether they’ll succeed in their mission or die on the open sea. In the end credits, the crew of Kon-Tiki was given credit for inspiring the first generation of astronauts and giving hope to a generation still in a daze after the horrors of WWII. With this simple, silent shot, you believe that their steely, unfounded courage did just that.
Let’s see Dwayne Johnson try to pull that off.
“Kon-Tiki” was one of the nominees for Best Foreign Language film at the 2013 Oscars; the English language version plays through Oct. 3 exclusively at Studio C! in Okemos.