'Kon-Tiki' and 'Europa Report' Demonstrate the Perils of Old-School Adventure

Why do we go to the movies? Well, lots of reasons, but one of the easiest and most common answers involves living other lives, experiencing thrills and dangers unlike the routines of our ordinary lives. In a word: adventure. It is the very fiber of the modern cinema tent pole, especially the summer variety. As the summer winds down, two films come home that promise cut-above high adventure without the comic-book tropes or meathead kinetics. After all, this is science! Sadly, neither flick ends up a successful experiment.

It's a little surprising to be confronted with the fact that there's never been a fictionalized screen version of Kon-Tiki, Norwegian ethnographer Thor Heyerdahl's account of his pioneering 1947 stunt-science voyage across the Pacific on a balsa-wood raft. (His documentary film of the voyage won an Academy Award in 1951.) Then again, once you think about it, it sort of makes sense. For all the fascinating detail recounted in his book, most of it boiled down to making observations and waiting passively as the ocean currents pushed him and his five fellow scientist/adventurers along, hopefully toward Polynesia rather than off into the endless waves.

Norwegian directors Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg's take on the tale (Anchor Bay DVD, Blu-ray, and streaming) doesn't lack for ambition, polish, or drama. Indeed, in contrast to the more donnish narrator of the book, this Heyerdahl (Pal Sverre Hagen) is a driven young scientist willing to stake everything—including his life, and the lives of his fellow travelers—on his contrary theory that Polynesia was settled by peoples from South America rather than from Asia, which had been the accepted scientific understanding ever since anyone in the West bothered to ponder it (and has been reaffirmed as the prevailing theory).

The early scenes in which Heyerdahl comes to his realization and then attempts to convince others are fairly deft, if formulaic. Of course some sailors tell him his plan to prove his theory by retracing the hypothesized colonizers' course in the same sort of raft they would have used will lead only to watery death, just as, of course, another man in the same bar, Herman Watzinger (Anders Baasmo Christiansen), believes it will work. Of course Heyerdahl clashes with his wife Liv (Agnes Kittlesen), who believes in him but would rather he not leave his family and risk disappearing into the maw of the Pacific. And once the raft finally departs, the formula only ramps up.

Kon-Tiki does a creditable job with the gawking wonders of the mid-ocean—cue CGI aquatic fauna. And it gets some well-done Movies 101 suspense out of putting the non-swimming Heyerdahl in a rubber dinghy at the end of a long rope to film the bobbing raft amid the lonely waves. But the interpersonal drama starts to feel a little too manicured—Watzinger's fears about the raft's integrity seem to bubble up rather conveniently and intensely, for example. And as if to compensate for the inherent stasis of the men waiting to find out whether or not Heyerdahl was right, Ronning and Sandberg milk the huge CGI sharks that shadow the raft for maximum terror. You can't blame them, but the handful of shark sequences feel over the top, unreal in a film that seems to pride itself on its bedrock sincerity.

All of which is to say that Kon-Tiki feels like, well, a movie, and one perhaps best pitched to the sort of nerdy tween boy who might have picked up a dog-eared copy of Heyerdahl's book several decades ago.

The adventurers at the heart of Europa Report (Magnolia streaming; DVD and Blu-ray out Oct. 8) are after an equally lofty scientific discovery as they blast off toward Jupiter to search for signs of life on the planet's title icy moon. And despite the fact that Sebastian Cordero's latest falls into the increasingly overdone and maligned "found footage" school, you may nonetheless rest assured that it has lofty goals. It has Ideas, even.

But it also has problems. The elliptical editing in the film's first third is perhaps meant to avoid reams of tedious exposition and rote character intro, but it stalls the film's momentum more effectively than a round of retro rockets. Once the international crew (an international cast of slumming stars of much better films, including District 9's Sharlto Copley, The Girl Who trilogy's Michael Nyqvist, and 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days' Anamaria Marinca) lands on Europa and the actual suspense mechanics kick in, the film has its moments, especially a spacewalk-gone-wrong that sets a high bar for Alfonso Cuaron's imminent Gravity. But the high-minded tone and low budget compromise its monster-movie mechanics, so that you're left with a sci-fi adventure that comes off neither smart nor fun.