Director: Marcus Nispel
Cast: Karl Urban, Russell Means, Moon Bloodgood, Jay Tavare, Clancy Brown, Nathaniel Arcand, Ralf Moeller, Kevin Loring, Wayne C. Baker, Michelle Thrush
MPAA Rating: (for strong brutal violence throughout)
Running Time: 1:39
Release Date: 4/13/07
Review by Mark Dujsik
Pathfinder is history seen as legend, and legend processed through the Hollywood action formula. It owes as much to The Lord of the Rings as it does to Apocalypto, but that is not a good thing. It's a chaotic piece of storytelling, told with the dull flash of quick-cut editing, ugly cinematography, and clichés that apparently pre-date Columbus' journey to the New World. It's a movie that works a bit better when no one on screen is talking, but even in its loud silence, the movie is still a mess of unattractive images and incomprehensible editing. That its release was pushed back is not surprising, but that it actually finds its way into theaters is. The movie has the feel of a rush-job, from its violent montage over the opening credits to its sad cliffhanger of a climax, and is perfectly suitable to an immediate, unceremonious discount direct-to-video release. Instead, it's available for consumption on the big screen and best left to those with a good sense of humor. Violent, bloody, and treating its plot progression as though driving a semi-truck, Pathfinder at least has moments of campy fun that were probably not intended to be called campy, but, hey, that's part of what makes something camp, right?
I actually learn more about the story by reading the synopsis on the movie's website than I did by watching the movie. For example, it's set 500 years before Columbus reached the Americas (not 600, as the movie's opening text tells us). Viking ships have arrived, and one young boy (Burkely Duffield) has been left behind to be discovered by a member of the Wampanoag people (thanks, synopsis), appropriately named in the screenplay as Indian Mother (Michelle Thrush). Raised by her and his Indian Father (Wayne C. Baker), the boy has grown up to be a hunter/warrior named Ghost (Karl Urban) to commemorate his pale skin. Still holding on to a sword that he was found with (the only sword available to the tribe, by the by), Ghost is part of the family but still an outcast from it because, his father tells him, he is "still haunted by demons from the past." When the members of his village are killed off or captured by Viking warriors, Ghost joins forces with the Pathfinder (Russell Means) of another village and his daughter Starfire (Moon Bloodgood), whom he loves, natch, to seek vengeance on the Norse invaders.
A question I cannot answer but one that comes up fairly regularly as the movie progress is whether the movie is a respectful or stereotypical presentation of Native American culture. The naming of many central and minor characters as "Indians" (the way neither of Ghost's adoptive parents is given a name is particularly odd) certainly points toward the latter, as do scenes showing dances and chanting with no meaning, one scene in which an shaman takes a hit off his pipe, choking out his advice for Ghost to get some sleep, and another where a good number of the tribe jump into their own trap. This could be a pretty major issue, but it's overshadowed by a lot of other questionable things. It's common practice for English to take the place of a native language, but there's a jarring disconnect here, as the "People of the Dawn" speak the King's English before ever knowing about the monarchy. The opening scene, set with the ambient noise of the worn-down ship where "Indian Mother" discovers the young Ghost, is effective, but then characters start talking. Ghost's perfect mid-Atlantic dialect is pretty funny, but maybe I'm just jaded by screenwriter Laeta Kalogridis' dialogue, which features these words of wisdom to Ghost from his love: "There are two wolves fighting in every man's heart. One is love; the other is hate."
The bigger problems lie within the movie's action sequences, or its entire reason for being. There are a lot of heads and limbs hewn, an arrow goes through someone's head, an eyeball is cut out, and a skull is cleft, leaving the brain exposed. Throats are cut, someone is drawn by horses, and lots of blood flies. If there's a disconnect from the story based on the dialogue, then there's a chasm separating us from the action with director Marcus Nispel's roots in music videos. Slow motion dominates, and the camera stays so close to the action while images flash from one to the next in rapid succession, there's little way to decipher exactly what's happening most of the time. This is particularly true of a sled chase (I told you there were some campy moments), where the only comprehensible element is that Ghost escapes and lots of Vikings get knocked down. The Vikings, by the way, are set up so villainously, they have the decided appearance of monsters. The orcs—sorry—Norse spend a lot of time in shadow, and Daniel Pearl's cinematography consists of two notes: muddy daytime scenes and grey night scenes.
There's a climax on the edge of a mountain, which features a too well-aimed shot with a rock, physical demonstrations of the domino effect and counter-balance, and the Norse-orcs (apparently invulnerable to long falls down a mountain) succumbing to stock footage of an avalanche. I suppose I should tell you Pathfinder is a remake of a 1987 Norwegian film that was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. This movie has inspired a graphic novel. We shall leave it at that.
Copyright © 2007 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.