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Pathfinder Print E-mail
Friday, 01 August 2008
ImageIn the late 9th century, a Native American woman stumbles across the remains of a shipwrecked Viking vessel, the entire crew dead except for one traumatized boy.  While initially reluctant, the tribe’s elders take the boy in, rename him “Ghost” and he is raised as one of their own.  Ghost has traumatic memories of his Viking upbringing and was witness to their slaughter of other Native American tribes.  When Ghost tried to intervene, he incurred his father’s wrath.  Fifteen years later, Ghost (now played by Karl Urban), and a young girl are attacked in the woods by Vikings (whom the tribe refers to as “Dragon Men”).  Returning to his village, he finds everyone slaughtered by the horrible Huns.  Ghost uses a Viking sword to kill one of them, injures another, and escapes into the woods, where he is able to pick off a few more before he’s shot by an arrow and goes over a waterfall.  The injured Ghost makes his way to the nearest village to warn them and advises them all to flee, as their spears and stone arrows are no match against the Vikings’ steel swords and armor.  Ghost’s girlfriend, Starfire (Moon Bloodgood) and Jester (Kevin Loring) both follow him into the woods, despite his protests, on an attempt to thin out the Vikings “First Blood” style, by hiding in the woods and setting traps for them.  While initially successful, they are captured by the Vikings who force Ghost to lead them to the nearest village by threatening to kill Starfire.  Starfire believes he has betrayed her people, but Ghost has other plans for the Vikings.

While an opening text crawl claims that the story is based on a myth referring to a Viking attempt to conquer North America, it’s clearly a pile of hooey, as the film is based on the 1987 Foreign Oscar Nominee, “Pathfinder”, which was, itself, based on an ancient folktale from Lapland.  The film starts off intriguingly and until the film jumps ahead 15 years, one is a bit unsure how the tale will be told.  Will Ghost’s father come to claim him?  Will the body of the film be the boy’s flashback to what happened on the ship?  Or will he be some part of a new Viking raid?  Once it jumps ahead 15 years, it becomes clear where the story is headed, but there is a surprising amount of carnage inflicted on the protagonists and a few likeable characters don’t make it to the final reel.  The Vikings are imposingly designed, with large helmets featuring horns that wrap around back to front, looking nearly identical to Frank Frazetta’s paintings of the black riders from “The Lord of the Rings.” Karl Urban is a physically capable lead (though he’s nowhere near as buff as the cover art suggests) but the superficial script by Laeta Kalogridis doesn’t allow him to show anything beyond stoic action heroics.  Clancy Brown, always looking appropriate in a goofy helmet and swinging a sword, is an appropriate choice, especially since the rest of the Vikings are almost entirely undistinguished.  Casting a known actor like Brown gives the character a bit more color and dimension, simply because of our awareness of similar roles he has performed.  The Native American actors making up the protagonists are a bit flat, and the very modern American accents in their line readings are distracting.  It would have made more sense for them to speak in a tribal dialect with subtitles, as the modern accents puncture any sense of verisimilitude.  The Vikings speaking in Icelandic with subtitles increases the sense of reality, but the Native Americans speaking modern English cancels it out.  

A few of the situations Ghost leads the Vikings into makes them seem almost comically stupid, which is a little at odds with the fearsome presence they project for so much of the film.  A trap meant for the Vikings accidentally eliminates a batch of well-meaning Indians, in a scene that’s tragic but also unintentionally funny, like a scene from a Monty Python film.  Overall, “Pathfinder” is passable entertainment, takes place in an unusual era and setting but is somewhat undistinguished and ultimately forgettable.  There’s an attempt to give the story a resonance, by establishing a prophecy that plays out in the ending, but it’s a bit vague and ultimately confuses more than it satisfies.

Director Marcus Nispel again teams up with director of photography Daniel Pearl (reunited after their remake of “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and 2004’s “Frankenstein” TV movie) and creates another film with a sweaty, grainy look and a muted artificial color scheme.  The visuals have a highly unreal look that has been timed via the digital intermediate process to appear nearly monochromatic.  Faces look pale, greens are faint-- almost gray, and blood has a raspberry cast to it.  The Blu-ray captures this look faithfully.  The extreme grain prevalent in the image makes the stability of the compression somewhat difficult to evaluate, but close-ups show crisp detail on the actors’ heavily lined faces, and a handful of less frenetically edited shots appear to convey a greater level of detail.  One shot after the waterfall sequence is clear enough that one can see that Urban is wearing contact lenses.  A few shots appear anamorphically stretched, as if the camera operator put the incorrect lens on for a handful of shots.  These don’t appear in one particular sequence for effect, but are isolated shots sprinkled throughout rapidly cut action sequences.  Whether this is a transfer anomaly or a filming mistake is a tough call to make, but given the stylized look of the film, it’s probably safe to assume these shots were filmed this way intentionally.  The BD contains the unrated version of the film running 8 minutes longer than the theatrical release.  Given the amount of swords through the eye, severed heads, and slashed throats in the film, one wonders what the 8 minute shorter “R” rated cut was like.

The DTS-HD MA track was evaluated via its DTS core and even that is impressive.  The film features an extremely busy and cluttered soundscape that is nearly wall-to-wall violent sound effects, thundering hoof beats, thunder, and clattering swords.  The LFE channel is used quite often throughout the film and particularly effective usage of it is made in the thunderstorm and avalanche sequences.  Sound effects are crisp and the mix makes bold and frequent usage of the surround channels.  Dialogue is only sparsely used and much of it is in Icelandic with English subtitles. The sound effects tend to bury the unmemorable music score in the mix.  

The disc includes six featurettes.  They’re all fairly short, totaling less than 30 minutes, but even so, a few interview snippets are used multiple times.  They offer a glimpse behind the scenes and much on-the-set footage is used, but they’re a bit insubstantial.  On the commentary track, director Marcus Nispel seems fairly relaxed and satisfied with the film.  He keeps up a pretty consistent stream of information and anecdotes, but how interesting one finds it is solely dependant on whether you find the film a successful work.  Nispel seems a bit uninformed regarding the original “Pathfinder,” erroneously referring to it as a short film.  The deleted scenes don’t add much more to the story and are sourced from a timecoded low resolution Avid output, with an incomplete mix and a few missing shots.  It’s presented at full screen width and is not 4x3 widescreen as is usually the case.  The theatrical trailer is included in HD, and is particularly welcome as it presents the film’s imagery prior to the Digital Intermediate process and has a much more vibrant, naturalistic color palette and shows none of the grain that the filmmakers added to the movie in post-production.

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