Sunday, August 26, 2007

Pathloser: A Brief Review of "Pathfinder"

Hey.

I know, I know: I'm a bastard. Real life is keeping me from finishing GENOCYBER, and I'm kind of enjoying my time between working on legit crap to actually watch movies instead of critiquing or arguing about them. So, with that in mind I wanted to share just a taste of pain with you that I, admittedly, brought upon myself. That pain, a complex and surprisingly smooth pile of crap, is none other than the 2007 summer not-blockbuster PATHFINDER.

What the hell is Pathfinder, anyway? Well, at face value it's a remake of a Norwegian film that was nominated for an Oscar circa 1987, under the title Veiviseren. It was the tale circa 1,000 AD of a simple Sami villager named Aigin, who's peasant home was leveled by marauders named Chude, who leaves to warn the next village before they befall the same fate. While some of the Sami villagers run for cover, the hunters stay and are overpowered by the numerous Chude forces. To save a fellow Sami from torture, Aigin agrees to become the Chude's Pathfinder and lead them to the next village across dangerous terrain, where he uses his cunning skills to turn the tables against the Chude and save the surviving Sami people.

The 2007 version retains this core story, but changes the setting entirely: now on North American soil, Native American/Canadian tribes are invaded by the Vikings. Aigin, now played by a shirtless and unshaven Karl Urban, is the disgraced son of a Viking warrior who was raised by Indians (yes, I'll use the word "Indian" and being 1/32 Cherokee y'all PC mother fuckers can bite me), he's known only as "Ghost" and was raised by the wife of the Dog Tribe's Pathfinder, which appears to be their chief who leads them to new lands in times of crisis. It should be mentioned that the Dog tribe is actually, yes, named after their sole loyal sheepdog. Not a wolf or coyote or anything else that makes sense. A fucking sheep dog. Yeah.

Anyhoo, Ghost - upset that the Pathfinder won't let him go through the right to manhood until he himself understands what he must do with his life - returns to find his own village laid waste to by a pack of vikings. Now when I say vikings I mean 8 foot tall hairy men who look like Hells Angels just robbed the closets of Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy, led by the pitiless have-axe will-travel Gunnar. I can't tell if I mean that in a good way or not anymore. They spend their time raping, pillaging, and I'll give director Marcus Nispel credit: he's got an eye for the gory goods, and eyeballs get cut from heads, skulls are ventilated with wanton abandon, limbs are hacked off, monuments of animal bones are erected, Vietnam-like spiked traps impale would-be heroes, and children are stalked only to be left alive minus their tongues. In a way, the film deserves praise for being a viking themed remake of CANNIBAL FEROX, and with 9 minutes having been trimmed from the already R-rated theatrical cut, the unrated release at least delivers on a level of pure visceral exploitation.

Unfortunately, it falls short in making the least bit of sense. For one thing, the tribe is "the Dog Tribe". Cool, wolf tribe! Oh... coyote tribe? Nope. They have a sheep dog. Yep', my hopes of a big viking eating wolf were dashed before I even had them. But that's just the start of my disillusionment. Despite having grown up with Indians after his Viking father abandoned him as a lad, Ghost can apparently remember fluent Icelanding, despite the Indians speaking English. I'd think maybe he was just really good at reading on-screen subtitles, but no, he speaks it too. Um... I could be mistaken, but after 15-20 years of not speaking or hearing a language, wouldn't you remember "Yes, no, thank you, where's the john" and "how much is a handjob" and that's about it? Let us also not forget that, despite being pursued by an army of heavily armored marauding vikings who are pissed that he's slaughtered a bunch of their own, Ghost stops to make sweet, sweet love to his ladyfriend Starfire. Even Apocalypto had no time for love, Doctor Jones, and this would have seemed tacked on even in the 1980's.

Still not convinced that the movie is an illogical pile of crap? I leave you with the following sentence: XTREME VIKING BOBSLEDDING!

I shit you not. Ghost, stolen shield in tow, escapes his would-be captors by putting the metal to the snow and cruising down the hillside. A clever sequence, and pretty believable... up until the Frank Frazetta wannabe's magically materialize winged black SLEDS OF DOOM, complete with one guy to steer and a seat in back so they can swing morning stars and shoot arrows as they careen down the dangerous terrain. A Jamacian bobsled team was goofy enough, but these man-powered suicide seats may well be the single most hilarious thing I've ever seen in any movie. Ever.

Sadly, it wasn't hilarious in a way that made the film any more watchable.

As if the script wasn't a horrifying pile of crap, everything else that could possibly go wrong did. Marcus Nispel, whom I learned to hate through "Michael Bay's" The Texas Chain Saw Massacre remake, wasn't at fault for making the film look like shit. Washed out high contrast stock made the arid Texas plains look seething and foreboding, while grainy crawling low-lit camera work turned the basement of the gothic home into a veritable labyrinth of torture and disgust, successfully working style over substance in turning what looks to me like a normal Texas home into something genuinely scary. Had the script for the TCM remake not been a steaming pile, maybe Nispel's music video background would have made the experience tense and exciting, instead of just completely predictable and stupid. Sadly, Pathfinder uses the same shtick and then some, using high contrast photography with virtually no color, turning the Canadian wilderness - some of the most gorgeous forests the world has ever known, as was expertly shown in Christophe Ganz' Crying Freeman feature - are turned into a fairly generic, nearly black-and-white blur of foliage. When you have a natural resource to your advantage, y'know, like a gorgeous location, USE IT! In a subconscious bit of irony, the general look of the film is directly comparable to a black and white/limited color comic book, and one of the features on the DVD is the background behind the Pathfinder Graphic Novel, which was created at the same time as - but not quite in direct correlation with - the film itself. Pathfinder's "comic look", while fascinating in itself, is a complete waste on the material.

Making matters worse is the fact that the last third of the film - from the moment we first see snow to the final frame - were not shot anywhere cool. In an attempt to make his non-locations look real, Nispel opted to cover every single frame with layers of snow and ice. Not a bad theory, but the limited budget and lack of any real reference make the scenes look like the snow effects I used to see in video games like Donkey Kong Country a decade and change ago. Seeing the making-of footage helps you appreciate the intricate stunt work, but nothing makes those low-rent Sci-Fi Original tier weather effects tolerable.

Dialog isn't even worth getting into. "I'm dying." "Well don't complain to me!" (I swear to god, that's a quote from the film.) Considering the limited and somewhat repetitive material, the cast makes out only somewhat unscathed: Karl Urban as Ghost does all right, trying like hell to be a combined Conan the Barbarian meets Tarzan but with The Highlander's sword, or, something. He's got good abs and the costume designer knows it, opting to have him prowl around half-naked in the mud for the second act, his scowling and slashing looking like an animated heavy metal LP cover. Moon Bloodgood (best name EVAH!) plays the love interest, who... well, gets to be sexy. She's good at it, to her credit, but the script gives her very little to do, except get almost-raped on the carcass of a dead moose (right at the point where I said to myself "I see the pillaging, but where's the raping?") and be used as a bartering item. The only real standout is Clancey Brown who plays the sinister yet human Gunnar as if he were the villainous Raou from Fist of the North Star with a beard and an axe. Truly a fine performance despite its' surroundings, he bellows and sneers in Icelandinc as if he'd been born on a dragon headed ship, and outclasses Urban's spitting out of the language as if it were mouthwash without even trying. While everyone else is tolerable - Russell Means as the aging Pathfinder playing his own ghost with a snide sense of humor and not a bit of pity was, I assume, meant to be funny - holding a candle to Brown just doesn't happen.

When Zach Snyder directed the Dawn of the Dead remake in 2004, I instantly hated him, his family, his girlfriend and everything he stood for. When I watched 300 three years later I stood by my opinion of his first theatrical film (though to his credit, the Unrated version sounds... well, better), but instantly wanted to be his bitch. The turn-around he made from a misguided horror remake to the most remarkable adaptation in the history of film was a 180 turn I never expected. For Marcus Nispel, the change is less dramatic: the non-stop medieval violence and silly set pieces of Pathfinder show a certain spark of talent that simply wasn't there when he directed the retarded, plodding script for The Texas Chain Saw Massacre in 2003, but that spark doesn't even come close to eclipsing the badness that seeps through to the core of the idea behind Pathfinder. It's a non-stop catalog of bad ideas and less than ideal executions that, despite their inherent trouble, show promise and maybe even hope for Nispel. Unfortunately, until they find the script that makes his love for crazy random shit thrown at the screen in no particular order, he'll continue making trainwrecks like this.

The funniest part of Pathfinder was that, in the wake of Apocalypto, Troy, Alexander and several other "primitive" action-adventure type films, it seemed inevitable that somebody would buck the trend of semi-believable historical epics and deliver something that was, as the staff admits, a big "what if?" scenario, with smaller budgets and less common sense than the bigger Hollywood features that spawned it. I couldn't help but think that if Italy's film industry weren't floating in the john that Italian money would have funded Pathfinder. In the 70's America made Dawn of the Dead and Emanuele, while Italy made cheap knock-offs like Burial Grounds and Black Emanuelle. In the 80's America made Predator and Conan the Barbarian, while Italy made Robowars and Conquest. The Italian knock-offs were never anywhere as good, or smart, or expensive as their Hollywood inspirations, but within them was a certain something, a sense of enthusiasm and fun that made even the worst of these cheesy ripoffs tolerable and entertaining. I can't say what it is, or how it's made, or why it's even there, but Pathfinder has just a tiny pinch of this lovable crapfest vibe that makes getting to the ending one or two steps below excruciating.

It's not a good film, or even an okay film. It's a bad film that made a lot of bad choices and was a bad idea to start with. But when all is said and done, I don't quite hate it, and I wouldn't doubt that I'm alone. Hell, a couple years later people will see it on cable and laugh at it. A decade or two from now, the 50,000 or so people who ever bothered to watch it will rent it (or download it, or play it on Holodisc or whatever) and cheer at a time when movies were simpler and better than they are now (even though they won't be) and will show it off to drunken friends as "this awesome bloody movie where vikings get their heads cracked open in Canada for no smart reason". Mark my words, Pathfinder will become a cult phenomenon in years to come wither it deserves to or not, and the only reason I can put forth as to why is that it's got that certain something that keeps Italian crapfests watchable and entertaining, even when the features they were knocking off aren't fresh in our memories. Apocalypse Now isn't something I can watch regularly, not even annually, but The Last Hunter? Pop that in and crank up the badly dubbed audio, it's been far too long since I saw that bowel movement on ice.

Vikings versus Indians? What a silly idea. Pirates versus Ninjas, however...

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