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Across the South Seas in a thrilling ‘Kon-Tiki’

© 2013 THE WEINSTEIN COMPANY. All Rights Reserved.

© 2013 THE WEINSTEIN COMPANY. All Rights Reserved.

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‘KON-TIKI’ ★★★

Thor Heyerdahl Pal Sverre Hagen

Herman Watzinger Anders Baasmo Christiansen

Bengt Danielsson Gustaf Skarsgard

The Weinstein Co. presents a film directed by Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg. Written by Petter Skavlan and Allan Scott. Running time: 118 minutes. Rated PG-13 (for a disturbing violent sequence). Opening Friday at Landmark Century.

Updated: June 4, 2013 6:05AM

As a kid, I remember my father insisting I read “The Kon-Tiki Expedition: By Raft Across the South Seas,” Thor Heyerdahl’s account of his amazing journey of discovery: navigating on a homemade raft 5,000 miles across the South Pacific from Peru to the Tuamotu Islands in 1947.

He wanted to prove his theory that cross-cultural contact was possible between the ancient South Americans and the peoples of the Western Pacific region. It was a compelling book — an exciting account of Heyerdahl and his small team’s adventures. It was also a book I went back to years later and still found it a wonderful read.

Now filmmakers Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg have returned to the Kon-Tiki tale with a very engaging biopic about their fellow Norwegian. Actor Pal Sverre Hagen portrays Heyerdahl with the kind of no-nonsense intensity that one would assume closely mirrors the real Heyerdahl, who died in 2002 at the age of 87.

The film does a great job of capturing the skepticism of the international scientific community, which initially scoffed at Heyerdahl’s thesis that native Polynesians originally arrived from the Americas, rather than the other way around. Wisely, the directors quickly take us onto the raft and on the perilous trip, pro­­viding a realistic sense of what Heyerdahl and his five raftmates must have experienced as they battled the elements, life-threatening storms and man-eating sharks.

The Kon-Tiki story has been well-recounted to many generations since the original 1947 groundbreaking voyage, including, along with Heyerdahl’s best-selling 1948 book, the 1951 film that won the best documentary Oscar. It’s good to see this historic adventure excellently retold using contemporary filmmaking techniques available today. While the performances of Hagen and his co-stars are spot-on, the cinematography is truly the major star of “Kon-Tiki.” I was completely engaged from beginning to end of this film, also Oscar-nominated itself this past year in the best foreign film category. Along with Hagen, particular mention should be made of the delightful performances of Gustaf Skarsgard as Heyerdahl’s quirky Swedish photographer, and Anders Baasmo Christiansen as the accident-prone, overweight refrigerator salesman Herman Watzinger, tapped as the engineer for the voyage.

From the frightening storms that frequently tossed the Kon-Tiki raft around like a child’s toy in the bathtub, to the ever-present sharks, to the fears that the hemp lashings (which held the raft together) were loosening, threatening a potential collapse and thus certain death, this movie is a true grabber.

“Kon-Tiki” reminds us how important it is to expand our horizons by making discoveries, exploring new worlds and pushing ourselves to the absolute limits of human endurance.

“Kon-Tiki” captures this on film in a truly beautiful way.

One final note, something that I had forgotten from reading Heyerdahl’s book so many years ago: Despite embarking on what would be 101 days navigating all those dangers while crossing the South Pacific, Thor Heyerdahl himself couldn’t even swim!

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