Pathfinder: Unrated Edition (DVD)

Two worlds. One war.

As every school kid can already tell you, Christopher Columbus wasn’t actually the first to discover America. A couple of centuries earlier, the Vikings made it across the pond. One of the reasons Columbus gets all the credit is because he makes for a nice heroic-looking figure, even though some historians argue that he wasn’t really a nice guy. There’s no disguising the Vikings as gentle explorers, though. Most historical accounts about these guys usually include the words “raping and pillaging.” They were a brutal force of nature, murdering and ransacking their way into the history books.

Seeing an opportunity for an action movie in the Vikings’ arrival in America, director Marcus Nispel alleges that he aimed for rising above his status of “that guy who directed the Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake” by crafting Pathfinder, a mini-epic with battles, revenge, heroics, and an old, old legend brought to life.

Sometime around 800 A.D., a Viking ship lands on foreign shores, with everyone on board dead except a small boy. A Native American woman raises the child as her own, naming him Ghost, because of his fair skin. Years later, Ghost (Karl Urban, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers) is a well-respected member of his tribe, even if a rival tribe’s Chief Pathfinder (Russell Means, Pocahontas) isn’t too keen on his romance with the beautiful Starfire (Moon Bloodgood, Eight Below). Ghost’s past comes back to haunt him when another Viking shipload arrives, making short work of the peaceful tribe. As one of few survivors, Ghost sets out for revenge, hacking and slashing his way through the invaders until he is eventually captured. Viking leader Gunnar (Clancy Brown, Highlander) wants Ghost to lead him to more tribes for more pillaging. Will Ghost stay true to the ideals of his adopted homeland, or is it his destiny as a long-lost Viking to bring doom to it?

Most of the articles and reviews I’ve read about Pathfinder compare it to the smash hit 300. There are a few surface similarities, such as bloody fight scenes, slow-motion action shots, and a lot of visual “wow” moments, but it’s still not a fair comparison. First of all, despite its glossy appearance, Pathfinder wasn’t created in front of a blue screen with everyone and everything CGI-enhanced like 300. Instead it was filmed on location, at a remote wooded location during a harsh winter. Any computer touches are to provide the movie’s rich blue color scheme, as well as the occasional flash of bright red arterial sprays.

As far as the story goes, we only get the simplest of introductions to these characters and their world before the Vikings show up and the mayhem begins. I don’t fault the filmmakers for wanting to jump right into the action, but I’m still left with very little sense of who Ghost is or how much of a valuable role (or not) he serves in the tribe. We only get brief glimpses from the Vikings’ perspectives as well. The bad guys spend most of the movie with their faces hidden behind scary looking black metal helmets, giving them more a feeling of an oppressive force rather than a group of people. What we’re left with, then, is a lot of carnage but not a lot of story.

The first half of the movie is basically Die Hard in a forest, as Ghost hunts down and kills his enemies in a series of one-right-after-the-other action set pieces. It’s all well-staged action, but it gets deadening after a while, giving the film a “nothing but fighting” feel. Once the Vikings get their hands on Ghost, however, the plot becomes much more interesting. Pathfinder’s second half is a battle of wits between Ghost and Gunnar, each trying to one-up the other at every turn. This made for a more satisfying experience, with the hero using his brains to save the day along with his amazing butt-kicking abilities.

The screener copy of the movie provided to DVD Verdict likely does not reflect the final product that you see on store shelves, but the DVD nonetheless has no apparent flaws in the video or audio. The bluish-green color scheme is deep and rich, and the DTS and Dolby 5.1 tracks are booming, with a lot of activity noticeable from the rear speakers.

The bonus features provide a fascinating look into the movie’s production, and are just about as entertaining as the movie itself. Nispel’s commentary and the group of featurettes all reveal the challenging circumstances of shooting the movie on location. They filmed outdoor scenes no matter what the weather, and about 90 people were hospitalized with injuries during the production. Still, everyone is proud of their work here, and it seems the harsh conditions helped the cast and crew bond. Other extras include some deleted scenes, trailers, and the “concept trailer” that Nispel and company used to gain financing for the film. It depicts Ghost as a young boy, instead of hunky Karl Urban.

So it’s not historically accurate. Very little is known about the Vikings’ original arrival on these shores, so the creators took license by devising their own, fantasized versions of the snarling Norsemen. This includes helmets with horns, even though scholars everywhere agree that Vikings never really wore such things. More attention to detail was paid to the Native Americans, though, with traditional tribal clothes and lodgings recreated for the movie. Nispel says the intent of the film is not to retell history, but to retell the “legend,” and the sometimes otherworldly look of the film reflects that.

Pathfinder is movie dessert—enjoyable, but there’s not a lot of substance. There’s some great action but not a lot of story, and I suspect viewers will end up forgetting about the film not long after seeing it.

The Verdict

For the charge of attempted genocide, the Vikings are found guilty and are to be banished back to the nearest fjord. Pathfinder, meanwhile, must pay a fine for slim plot and character work, and is then free to go.

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