The first complaint you're going to hear about Pathfinder from people is that it’s not historically accurate. Viking helmets have horns on them, they landed in the wrong part of the country, etc. That complaint is easily addressed. The subtitle of Pathfinder (although it appears nowhere in the movie) is “Legend of the Ghost Warrior.” It’s a legend – it doesn’t have to be historically accurate. Even though the subtitle is in name only, the opening of the movie specifically addresses that “the legend is what follows” in the movie. In fact, that “legend” business probably saves the story from a lot of potential problems, giving the filmmakers an instant excuse to address movie issues.
The story centers around a Viking child who is beaten and left for dead by his people for refusing to hurt an Indian child. The Indians find him and raise him as one of their own. Fifteen years later, the Vikings return and the boy, named Ghost, helps defend his people from their attackers, “the dragon people.”
So Karl Urban plays a character who was resistant to combat as a child, was raised among Indians, but still has excellent ability with sword, shield, and armor? Easy explanation – it’s the stuff of legends. Legendary figures have always had bigger than life skills, so the fact that a pacifistic child who is raised in a culture that doesn’t use these kinds of weapons is irrelevant. He’s a legend. This also can be used to excuse the fact that he still speaks the Viking language with ease and at no point exhibits the sound or feel for the language of the people who raised him. Legends can do that sort of stuff. Just look at Paul Bunyan or Pecos Bill. I may not like it, but at least it makes sense in the context of the “legend” idea.
What isn’t the stuff of legends, and isn’t written off as easily as the massive characterization problems, is the horrific filmmaking on display Pathfinder. This, ladies and gentlemen, is what happens when you give a feature film to a music video director who has no ability beyond the three-minute format. Director Marcus Nispel shows every trait of “MTV filmmaking” from a shaky camera during action sequences that moves so much it left me dizzy for twenty minutes after the movie, to quick editing to help build tension. One particular scene, featuring Ghost riding a shield down a snow covered mountain (again – legendary), held no shot for more than two-three seconds. I know. I counted.
The introduction calls the movie a legend, but Nispel’s visual approach is anything but. The film has a grainy, stark contrasted look that probably hides much in the way of mistakes, but also hides most details. While it has an interesting effect on the Viking warriors, making them huge, lumbering shadows of dread, it creates a tone to the movie typically reserved for realistic environments, further enhanced by a washed out color scheme. That tone completely contradicts the legendary theme behind the story. At the same time, it sets the viewer off. Why would either the Vikings or the Indians want to live in such a dreary world?
It’s not just the visual style Nispel approaches the film with, or the MTV filmmaking at work. There are basic tenants of filmmaking that are completely absent here. There are rarely any establishing shots, so the passage of time and place is completely lost on the audience. One scene has the Vikings chasing Ghost and his companions through caves, but there is never any idea given how close any of them are to each other. Typically you establish the scene, then play within it, but the movie is devoid of any of those basic principles.
Pathfinder is not just a bad movie, it’s the equivalent of a cinematic abortion. Some of the horrible ideas can be written off due to the tale’s status as a “legend” but that doesn’t excuse the technically poor work behind the movie. It’s safe to say that Karl Urban and Clancy Brown deserve better than a movie like this, and if this is the best Nispel can do he’s about to give Uwe Boll some competition in the Worst Director category. At least Boll can excuse away his work as a tax write off. There’s no excuse for Pathfinder.