It's never a good sign when a movie sits on the shelf for too long, and to give you an idea how long Pathfinder had to wait before it could come to a theatre near you, consider this: The studio behind this film also produced X-Men: The Last Stand, and invited journalists to visit the sets of both films simultaneously while they were being shot in Vancouver. But the mutant-superhero movie, which presumably needed a lot more time in the special-effects lab once all the principal photography was done, came out almost a year ago, whereas Pathfinder, a simple revenge flick set during the Vikings' attempted colonization of America, is only coming out now.

Karl Urban as Ghost

Karl Urban as Ghost

Unfortunately for the film, this delay means it is coming out after the release of Mel Gibson's Apocalypto and Zack Snyder's 300, two films that it resembles rather strongly—and while Pathfinder would have been a bad film no matter when it was released, the inevitable comparison makes it look all the poorer.

Like Apocalypto, the new film concerns a man whose village is destroyed by brutish outsiders, and who fights back by retreating deeper and deeper into the forests that he knows. And like 300, the new film depicts a turning point in history when one civilization tried to conquer another, but ultimately failed; just think how different our world would be if the Persians had squelched Greek culture, or if the Norsemen had established a permanent base in North America centuries before Columbus showed up. However, unlike those films, which were engaging on all sorts of levels despite their crassness, there is little in Pathfinder that is all that interesting.

Since he was a young boy, he always wanted to get a head

Since he was a young boy, he always wanted to get a head

Like those films, Pathfinder also has a lot of violence—but it doesn't have a lot of action, and that is one of its biggest problems. The film is directed by Marcus Nispel, whose only previous feature film is the remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre—and Pathfinder comes across like the sort of film one makes when one is more fascinated by ugliness and the grotesque than by anything resembling movement or excitement. The film is populated by monstrous bad guys who wear skulls for masks, and it is full of tight close-ups on people being jabbed and stabbed and ripped apart in every possible way. And then there are the corpses, lots and lots of corpses.

The story starts when a Native American woman discovers a Viking shipwreck filled with dead bodies and one lonely survivor, a 12-year-old boy she takes home to raise as a member of her tribe. Fifteen years later, the boy—named "Ghost" due to his pale skin and blond hair—is a man, and something of a misfit, neither fully accepted by the Americans nor eager to reconnect with his Scandinavian roots. Ghost (Karl Urban, who played the Viking-like É omer in The Lord of the Rings) is haunted by nightmares of his youth, when his father beat him for failing to be as savage and bloodthirsty as all the other Vikings, but he still practices with his father's sword, an heirloom that easily outclasses the stone-age weapons used by the Americans.

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Slaying Orcs, er, Vikings, er, what's the difference

Slaying Orcs, er, Vikings, er, what's the difference

The sword comes in handy when a new group of Vikings arrives and attacks Ghost's adopted home—and director Nispel is clearly in his element when the villains make their first appearance. A Native girl goes for a walk with her dog and runs in panic when she encounters one group of attackers, only to see another and another; she's like the doomed teenager in a horror movie, surrounded on all sides by monsters.

But once the actual fighting begins, the film turns dull and lifeless. From beginning to end, the film plods when it should pulse; whether it's Norsemen on the attack or Ghost striking back, Nispel never manages to capture the din of battle or the thrill of the chase. There is no suspense, and little tension: just a beheading here, followed by a dismemberment there, followed by a throat-slashing or two, and so on. The script (by Laeta Kalogridis, who wrote Oliver Stone's Alexander) includes a few good ideas for action setpieces, including a literal cliffhanger of an ending, but Nispel doesn't stage the action itself in a way that gets you remotely involved.

That Ghost kid was always a cut-up

That Ghost kid was always a cut-up

It doesn't help that the film never gets very close to any of its characters—including Russell Means (The Last of the Mohicans) as a sort of wise mentor to Ghost, and Moon Bloodgood (Eight Below) as Ghost's love interest—or that the performances are somewhat stilted, or that the handful of special effects are pretty lame, or that the film looks unnaturally grim from beginning to end. Apocalypto celebrated nature in all its wondrous, vicious beauty, and 300 was unapologetically synthetic from beginning to end, but Pathfinder tries to have it both ways: it was shot mostly on location, with natural trees and beaches, but all the footage has gone through a digital process that drains the scenery of its color—and even with all that digital manipulation, the occasional CGI effect still stands out for its tackiness!

It's a shame, because the film has the basic ingredients of a decent myth. The clash of cultures, Ghost's struggle to figure out who he is, and similar themes all could have been interesting to explore. But no matter how primal these themes are, you still need a certain level of craft to pull it off, and you still have to create human beings who can make these themes matter. Apocalypto and 300 were animated by ideas, however crudely expressed, but Pathfinder, alas, has nothing to say.

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Talk About It

Discussion starters
  1. Ghost, as a Viking raised by Native Americans, struggles to find a sense of self. Where do you find your sense of self? Is it in ancestry? Community? Upbringing? Personal choices? Which factors matter most to you?
  2. How important is it to have a sense of self in order to help other people? What do you make of the advice that the elder Pathfinder gives to Ghost? How have people helped you find your path? How have you helped others to find theirs?
  3. Starfire tells Ghost that Love and Hate are like "two wolves fighting in every man's heart," and she says the wolf that wins is "the one you feed the most." Do you agree? Is it possible to love and hate at the same time? How do we feed these wolves?

The Family Corner

For parents to consider

Pathfinder is rated R for strong brutal violence throughout, including various forms of dismemberment, throat slashings, eyeball gouging, impaling, drowning, and at least one brief and quickly thwarted rape attempt (no nudity is shown). A Native American shaman speaks of a "prophecy" and performs a healing ritual on a wounded man.

What other Christian critics are saying:

Our Rating
1½ Stars - Weak
Average Rating
(not rated yet)ADD YOURSHelp
Mpaa Rating
R (for strong brutal violence throughout)
Directed By
Marcus Nispel
Run Time
1 hour 39 minutes
Karl Urban, Clancy Brown, Moon Bloodgood
Theatre Release
April 13, 2007 by 20th Century Fox
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