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Review: 'Kon-Tiki' is handsome yet underwhelming

Friday - 4/26/2013, 9:41am  ET

This film image released by The Weinstein Company shows a scene from "Kon Tiki." (AP Photo/The Weinstein Company)

SHERI LINDEN
The Hollywood Reporter

LOS ANGELES (AP) -- The Norwegian directing team of Joachim Roenning and Espen Sandberg, whose biopic of World War II resistance fighter Max Manus was a huge hit on home turf, have turned to another native hero for "Kon-Tiki." One of the most-vaunted escapades of the 20th century, Thor Heyerdahl's 1947 Peru-to-Polynesia expedition by raft gets glossy big-screen treatment in this efficiently told action-adventure. Delivering visual drama and understated character study, sometimes in disappointingly formulaic fashion, the feature has its incisive moments but falls short as both epic and intimate portrait.

With effective immediacy, the directors dramatize some incidents from Heyerdahl's 1950 Oscar-winning documentary about the trip, and cinematographer Geir Hartly Andreassen pays tribute in re-created B&W footage of the building of the raft. Too much of the action, though, devolves into close encounters with sharks, scenes that leave the on-deck characters adrift rather than helping to define them.

The film, uniquely shot twice in both Norwegian and English, begins with a brief childhood-episode prologue that makes clear that Heyerdahl is singularly driven. The first words in Petter Skavlan's screenplay are a warning to the young Thor as he ventures onto the ice: "Don't do it!" At his peril he ignores the naysayers, and will again 20-odd years later, when, as an accomplished ethnographer, he finds his unconventional theories derided and rejected by every scientific publisher in New York.

The gist of those theories is that 1,500 years earlier, the Polynesian islands were settled not by Asians, the agreed-upon scenario, but by South Americans crossing the Pacific from the east. To prove it, Heyerdahl sets out to make the trip himself, using methods and materials like those available to pre-Columbian Incas, and naming his balsa-wood raft Kon-Tiki, after an Incan sun god.

As he should, the central character remains an enigma, steady and elusive. Portraying the adult Thor, actor P
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