Pathfinder


At least three times during “Pathfinder”, I found myself on the verge of tears. It being a nearly plotless, endlessly brutal adventure flick, this must come as a surprise to anyone reading this. But here’s the thing: I wasn’t really moved by the story or characters (though the hero’s final cry of pride did get to me), but by a kind of nostalgic joy as a moviegoer. I liked “300”, but I thought the wall-to-wall CGI took away from the visceral impact of Frank Miller’s vision. Enter Marcus Nispel who, like Mel Gibson before him, is all about actually going into the woods, waters and mountains and making you feel the elemental might of nature, which makes even the madness of Man seem small. There’s something of Herzog to that, too.

But now I’m intellectualizing it, which will seem even more ridiculous to some, when what I was actually trying to get to is how “Pathfinder” is a wonderful throwback to the movies I loved as a kid, in the 1980s. That’s what moved me, the virtual flashback to when I was 7 or 8, watching “Conan the Barbarian” with my dad and my brother. Naysayers will say that it’s because films like this, with their non-stop action scenes and apparent lack of thematic depth, are childish, barely good enough to entertain undiscerning boys. In reality, though, it’s the discernment of so-called mature filmgoers that’s askew, whether they realize it or not. They dismiss mythical tales as simplistic and irrelevant to complex contemporary socio-political issues, while children instinctually understand that these “simple” stories hold great truths about life and death, good and evil, love and hate.

But here I am intellectualizing it again, when what I really want to express is what a kickass, old-fashioned epic “Pathfinder” is. While not in the scope of “The Lord of the Rings”, Nispel’s film is still Heroic Fantasy of the first order. I’d bet dollars to donuts that Nispel and cinematographer Daniel Pearl studied the paintings of Frank Frazetta, just as I’m sure screenwriter Laeta Kalogridis must have taken a few cues from Robert E. Howard. Purists may assert that while undeniably heroic, this saga isn’t technically fantasy. Granted, “Pathfinder” is based on an historical fact, Vikings having reached America nearly 500 years before Christopher Colombus and clashed with Native Americans. But believe me, this is far from being a dry History lesson – this is a clear-cut case of “print the legend”!

This is an epic poem, all action and visual storytelling. Less “Last of the Mohicans” than “The 13th Warrior”, “Pathfinder” is an over the top adventure in which the setting is realistic, but everything else is larger than life. The Vikings are not so much human characters here than unstoppable figures of doom. They’re giants, they’re monsters, they’re beasts covered in steel, arriving in dragon ships, mounting hellish horses and roaming the land, leaving nothing but fire and blood behind them. They have minimal dialogue and we barely ever see their faces. They’re like the Black Riders in LOTR, but with beards and horned helmets!

I disliked Nispel’s first feature, the slick but soulless “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” remake, even though I found it to be damn intense and well crafted. The difference here is that as cruel and violent as the imagery can be, horror isn’t the point, it’s what the hero is trying to overcome. And who’s our hero? The press notes refer to him as Ghost, but I don’t remember him being ever called by name through the film – he’s kind of a Man With No Name. Portrayed by Karl Urban, he is no cartoonish he-man à la Schwarzenegger, but that’s alright. He’s a more human-level hero, capable of showing emotion, too. He’s still a badass, mostly defined by his physicality and his ability to chop his enemies into pieces. He’s a Conan-type, but he also borrows a few Rambo moves, emerging out of water or mud piles, setting deadly traps, etc (no guns though, obviously). Yet he’s trying to rise above his base, murderous instincts. There you have it: either that moves you or it doesn’t.

“They live and die by the sword. It is in their blood.”
“Is it in your blood?”

NOTE – Action fans like to share, so I wrote America’s leading badass cinema scholar Vern, telling him “Pathfinder” was awesome. Here’s his answer:

It could happen, but I’m not sure yet. If a giant rock fell out of the sky and landed on that director to punish him for that fucking TEXAS CHAINSAW remake, I would not shed a tear. Unless the rock was somehow injured.

I was kind of excited anyway when I saw stills from it and read the premise, but the trailer didn’t look like my kind of thing. But we’ll see. I may see it.

–Vern