Thursday, April 15, 2010

Gotterdammerung Epics: PATHFINDER (2007)

I know, I know, the rest of the planet thought this movie sucked, but then again, the rest of the planet loved NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 6, DIE ANOTHER DAY, TERMINATOR III and tons of other insufferable Hollywood crap, so what the hell do they know? I guess it got kinda cool for a brief moment to make sword n’ sorcery movies again. No complaints out of me, I’m perfectly happy to watch steroid-addled, long-haired manifestations of a testosterone-engorged id, separate motherless curs from their component parts with a mighty sword of legend. Seriously. What’s not to like?

A Native American woman stumbles across a half-destroyed Viking long-ship and a slew of dead bodies within. Among the dead a young boy, the son, as we soon learn, of a great Viking warrior who was part of a larger raiding party that was travelling from village to village doing what the Vikings of lore did: Pillaging, looting and enslaving. You’ll notice I didn’t say “raping”, as this film decides to eschew that reality in favor of more bloodthirsty antics. Some might decry this as being “PC” or playing it safe, but it really is unnecessary in what is basically a fantasy action movie. Fifteen years after being taken in by the Native American tribe, Ghost (as he is called, presumably because of his skin color and not because of what he does to his enemies) finds his tribe slaughtered, their carcasses left to be torn apart by the dogs in a scene that strongly echoes a similar scene in CONAN THE BARBARIAN (1982), but actually ups the gore quotient. This sets him on a path of revenge.

Thick with gothic Mario Bava-esque visuals and somewhat reminiscent of the sword movies of the ‘80s, the film plays like an Italian rip-off of APOCALYPTO and 300. The Italians never liked to be constrained by the limitations of the films they were exploiting, neither does this. Like the aforementioned studio films, PATHFINDER is based on a legend that is based in reality. Archeological and anthropological evidence shows that around 1000 BC Viking ships landed on North American shores some 500 years before Columbus sailed the ocean blue. There are two Icelandic sagas, The Saga of Eric the Red and The Saga of the Greenlanders, that refer to the discovery of this “Vineland” and a 1960 archeological dig backs up the Nordic scribblers. Now, knowing that, what sort of movie would you make? A highly stylized, ultra-gory fantasy flick? Hell yeah, you would! The visuals, while inspired by APOCALYPTO, are incredibly atmospheric with layers of detail, gnarled black trees, mountains of skulls, mist, fog, snow and smoke providing atmosphere so thick you could cut it with an antler. In spite of the fact it is a gory fantasy yarn, a lot of attention was paid to the accuracy of the Indian villages and the deliberate, over-the-top inaccuracy of the Viking warriors who are portrayed as cruel, sadistic, hulking brutes who’s black eyes and ornate armor make them more like monsters than men. Again, this is fine with me as they make a great group of villains. Their voices are deep and guttural and they speak only in Icelandic (with subtitles) which is a really cool touch. Veteran badass Clancy Brown totally steals the film as the grizzled leader of the Viking hoards, without careening into campiness as he is want to do. Admittedly our beefcake lead, Karl Urban is pretty bland, but after the first half an hour, it's all non-stop action and extremely violent action at that. Did I mention it was gory? Some of the blood spray is done CGI, however it’s done much better than most and even so most of the graphic gore is the real prosthetic stuff. I don’t cotton to them “fantasy lite” outings like the sanitized, sissified 1997 adaptation of Robert E. Howard’s brutal and dark Kull series, so this is a welcome antidote.

Director Marcus Nispel, best known for the tepid and pointless remakes THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (2003) and FRIDAY THE 13TH (2009), has been chosen, no doubt on the merits of this film, to helm the forthcoming CONAN THE BARBARIAN remake. It’s really a shame because like TEXAS CHAINSAW, there is no way to remake a classic genre film of this caliber and have it do anything but pale in comparison. Particularly dismal is the casting of Baywatch pretty-boy Jason Momoa as Conan; this fodder could be cranked out by anyone. I’d much rather see Nispel make another original film so at least I can know whether PATHFINDER was a fluke or the glimmer of untapped talent.

Being a sucker for violent sword n' sorcery flicks and films that make an effort to create a detailed fictional world that drips with atmosphere in general, I really enjoyed it. The film operates on it's own logic and there's no comic relief, no hipster-friendly anachronisms, no glib one-liners. Definitely the thing to turn off a modern audience. As far as I can tell, judging from the reactions of others, audiences expected something dramatic and somewhat pretentious like  APOCALYPTO (which is unfortunately exactly what the trailers imply) and were turned off by the uber-stylized violent exploitation film approach. Then there is the "serious" film scholar who cannot tolerate anything that is not a mega-budgeted Hollywood "thinking man's film" (except of course for the dubious claims of enjoying French New Wave films) shrieking their bandwagon-jumping disapproval in much the same way BLADE RUNNER (1982) was railroaded by the "serious" crowd for being "noisy" and "muddled" (who have all done a complete 180 now that it is fashionable). Not that this is anywhere near as misunderstood or as brilliant as BLADE RUNNER was, but the sime thrill that some people get from jumping on the hate wagon is easy to see here. I’m sure the rather forgettable title didn't help either. Your mileage may vary, but for my money this is easily the best sword-wielding flick of the decade.

This is the Promotional Trailer that was used to gain backing for the film. In spite of the fact that it's not cleaned up with professional titles and voice work, it actually does a better job of setting up the film than the studio cut trailer.

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