Fox // Unrated // $29.99 // July 31, 2007
Review by Jamie S. Rich | posted July 5, 2007
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Wow, what a waste of time this was.

I actually wish that Pathfinder was worse so that I might feel inspired to write something really scathing and witty and just tear it to shreds. Instead, it's so mediocre, the best I can come up with is "If your path leads you to this movie, find another one," and some vague twists on the phrase "the road less traveled." For a movie about bloody destruction, it's ridiculously bloodless.

What little plot there is in the film is easily summed up: Somewhere on the East Coast of the Americas, long before Columbus lost his way, the Vikings happened upon the main continent. Something went wrong, and a ship full of Norse warriors was killed, leaving one young boy behind to be adopted into a Native American tribe. The boy grows up as a semi-outcast, living to see his new family killed when the Vikings--or as they are called, Dragon Men, because their ships have dragons on them--return to inflict mayhem, and he basically becomes the last obstacle preventing the marauders from taking over the entire country. In doing so, he will finally find his path for his life amongst his true people. Though he won't be the new Pathfinder. That's going to be someone else.

If my description sounds vague, it's because the movie is extremely short on explanation. I watched it with a friend of mine who actually digs stuff about Vikings, and she and I were constantly noticing big leaps over plot holes. For instance, if the boy (now named Ghost, because he's, you know, pale--and played by New Zealand actor Karl Urban) was not fully accepted into the tribe and not allowed to be a part of things, where did he learn to fight so well? And what exactly were the Vikings after? They are on this relentless quest to find the hiding villagers and kill them all, but they never pick up any loot or stake any claims to the land they raze or anything. I'd have even bought some kind of "We're on a hunting trip for the most dangerous" explanation. As Ghost and his female companion (Moon Bloodgood) start thinning out their ranks, it's hard to believe these bad dudes wouldn't just kill these two and call it a day. Besides, as my friend pointed out, Urban looks like a soap star. You'd think some burly Norseman would smack him across the mouth just because he looked like a pretty-boy jerk.

No one in this movie has the slightest motivation beyond either being a killer or trying not to get killed. There are no characters to speak of, no real sense of either society. Director Marcus Nispel (Texas Chainsaw Massacre) instead decides to dump us right into the action, and Pathfinder pretty much hits the ground running. Which I would not have a problem with, except it doesn't run very fast. The action sequences are unbearably dull. Men get slashed with swords and little slow-motion burps of blood bubble from their wounds, but it's not even remotely exciting. When Nispel isn't relying on slo-mo, he goes in the complete opposite direction and relies on the chaos factor--quick edits, tight framing, and a lack of continuity so that we don't know what's going on. So, we're either seeing too much or too little, and it's hard to work up a lather to care either way.

In our heckling of the movie, my friend and I actually brought up Apocalypto, which neither of us cared for all that much. We have to give Mel Gibson credit, though. He essentially made the South American equivalent of Pathfinder, and his movie shows where this one went wrong. He began his movie by allowing us to get acquainted with the community that was going to be under threat, so that his audience would at least have some investment in its fate. Then, when the movie turned into a chase picture, he kept it moving, distracting from how cliché the action choreography actually was.

Not so in Pathfinder. Ghost takes his enemy on a slow slog up a mountainside, and we are painfully aware of every muddy, icy step. If I told you that the last big battle involves people dangling off the mountains as ropes fray, swords getting lost in a rocky crevice, and someone shouting and causng an avalanche, wouldn't you think I was kidding? If only I were! About the only original thing Nispel brings to this movie is that Ghost ends up snowboarding down some sweet powder on the back of a Viking shield. Lucky for the bad guys they actually brought sleds with them--ones decorated with cool wings on the back, no less--and can chase their prey with ease. Which is probably why the scene only lasts about a minute. Damn! But hey, if the Vikings were smart enough to bring sleds, why are they so clueless about other aspects of dealing with snowy terrain? A lot of them settled in Iceland, for goodness sake, and I assume it was called that for a reason.

I should've taken notes while watching Pathfinder so I could go point by point just how dumb it is, but alas, I was stifling more yawns than appalled giggles, and it really would have been more effort than is logically required. I don't want to sound conceited or nothin', but I'd like to think if I did my job right, this review is more entertaining in a shorter space of time than the film is. My Viking pal also told me that the original movie that this was based on, a 1987 Norwegian film directed by Nils Gaup (who I am sure is shuddering in embarrassment somewhere over this abomination he inadvertently spawned), is the much better rental. If you must satisfy some kind of Nordic itch, go for that.


It should be noted that my review of Pathfinder is based on a blue-backed advance disc that did not come in its final packaging and is watermarked with periodic appearances of the 20th Century Fox logo. This means what I saw is not reflective of the final product--or at least one would hope. The anamorphic transfer on the review copy is extremely bad, rife with digital artifacting and edge enhancement. Chances are the retail version will fix this. (For now, I will not give the video a star rating. I'll amend this review if I see a different version.)

Plenty of excellent audio options to choose from. The original soundtrack is in 5.1, both Dolby Digital and DTS. It's a good mix. The dog in the house kept barking at action in the back speakers, convinced we were being invaded. There are also French and Spanish tracks in 2.0.

Subtitles are in English and Spanish.

Pathfinder is being released separately in both the theatrical version and an unrated special edition. The disc I watched was the unrated version, and from what I gather from the commentary, the difference is a scene in chapter 11 between Ghost and the original Pathfinder that we are told was not in the theatrical cut. I am not sure if this extends to later scenes between the characters that advance a subplot between them. It wasn't clear. It also sounded like the framing symbolism of the white horse was not in the theatrical cut, either.

The full audio commentary with Marcus Nispel is actually a welcome surprise. You can probably guess what it's usually like to have to go back and rewatch a film you didn't enjoy just to hear the director talk about it. I'm happy to say that this audio track is actually very good. Nispel is a genial speaker with a good sense of humor, and he speaks in detail about how the film was put together, including some of his goals and the level of research that went into creating Pathfinder. It's a little disheartening to hear what good intentions Nispel had artistically and how little of that I feel comes across on the screen. Listening to his passion actually gave me a few pangs of guilt over what I've written, but I have to call it like I see it.

Seven deleted scenes clocking in at a little over 10 minutes are relatively inconsequential. The most memorable is a scene showing what a bad hunter Ghost is. It's a smart cut, as it would have made his fighting skills even harder to believe. There is also the amazing revelation that the movie originally had a fart joke. You never cut the fart joke! These scenes can be watched with or without commentary from Nispel.

Under a featurettes submenu, there are seven short films about various aspects of production. These are your standard self-congratulatory promos featuring cast and crew interviews, film clips, and behind-the-scenes footage. They play individually, there is no "play all" option.

The Beginning (5 minutes, 10 seconds): The impetus to remake the original and the basis of the new story.
The Design (6:30): The look of the film, including the choice to give the Viking helmets horns and the creation of the supplemental comic book.
The Build (5:10): Set and prop creation.
The Shoot (5:40): On-the-set for a rather tightly budgeted, swift shoot.
The Stunts (5:35): Showing how the stunts for the movie were done old school, without much green screen or digital help.
"We Shoot Now!: Marcus Nispel on the Set of Pathfinder" (2:35): A humorous short celebrating the director being a control freak.
"Clancy Brown: Cult Hero" (2:40): Brown is the actor who plays Gunnar, the head Viking, and he's been in many, many films. This gives him a little extra praise.

The most fun in these is seeing how defensive everyone is about the choices to break from fact and how often that is followed by the contradictory insistence of Pathfinder's authenticity.

In the trailer zone, we get a four-minute promo trailer Nispel shot as a commercial for investors and distributors to get Pathfinder rolling. It's actually pretty impressive. We also get the movie's theatrical trailer and four more trailers for current Fox horror films and thrillers.

Product Tie-In: Dark Horse comics has published a graphic novel version of Pathfinder, put together by artist Christopher Shy from the screenplay by Laeta Kalogridis. Developed at the same time as the movie was being shot, the comic book ends up being a parallel yet divergent version of the Pathfinder story. From a pure plot and narrative standpoint, the book is actually stronger than the film. It takes more time with the characters, giving us more insight into what Ghost has gone through and a greater understanding of both why the Native Americans fear the invaders and what the Vikings are after. It even attempts to explain some of the dubious traps Ghost leads the marauders into. It's still not that great, and visually it's very bland. From the look of it, Shy's technique is some form of paint and digital combination, but the final art is kind of lifeless, especially when he cuts and pastes the same face for some characters from panel to panel, so they stare out at you with the same blank expression from one page to the next. Still, as a tie-in, it was sent along with the disc to review, and it's noteworthy as being more of a companion piece than an adaptation.

One of the producers in the "The Beginning" featurettes uses the term "comic book" as a pejorative more than once to excuse the film's narrative emptiness. How ironic that the comic book is actually deeper than the movie. Choose your words more carefully in the future, m'boy.

I can't stress this enough: Skip It. Pathfinder is bad. Really and honestly bad. Not laughingly bad. Not so bad it's almost good. But bad as in boring. Bad as in absent of any real story, any real characters, and even any decent fight sequences. It's much ado about nothing. Though the studio is treating it as some kind of high-end release, loading the DVD up with extras, Pathfinder really would have made more sense as some kind of direct-to-video dumper. Just stay away.

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