The visual design of “Pathfinder” is so dark that it seems intent on welcoming fans of gloomy graphic novels. Its tones range from sheer black to medium gray, and the few bright touches come from the burning gold of a torch or the white of an eye in closeup. Occasionally, the spilled blood (plentiful, and at times created through CGI) casts a spray of deep red, but for the most part looks like black ink flecked onto the camera lens.
Director Mike Nispel, who resurrected a D.O.A. “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” in 2003, sets a dark mood for what begins as a fish-out-of-water scenario (usually reserved for comedy, mind you). “500 years before Columbus,” a young Norseman is abandoned in the snows of North America and taken in by natives. Reared by especially ghastly Vikings, “Ghost” (Karl Urban, “Lord of the Rings” trilogy) – named, naturally, for his light skin – grows to be quite a warrior and a contender as the tribe’s next “Pathfinder,” i.e., shaman/warrior. While the skeptical elders reject him, he must prove himself when his birthfather’s Norse tribe returns like a pack of rabid boars and slaughters his new kin.
These Vikings appear so barbaric that they barely register as human. (The film finds a welcoming wake behind the absurd experiment in historical bloodlust, “300,” and even replicates a wolf-slaughter from that film when a native kills a bear.) As the Norsemen prepare for an attack, for every legible syllable heard, numerous grunts and snarls sound out. Their Viking helmets often include skull masks over black makeup that looks more like a genetic defect than warpaint. Extensive, form-fitting armor makes them appear to have exoskeletons: we wonder if one of them would naturally regenerate a breastplate, should it be torn from his body.
So “Ghost” has an indestructible army against him. But of course, he is a master warrior, with the speed and agility to attack right at the exposed inches of his enemies’ skin. All alone, he takes on a tribe that exists to ravage, while practically all of the natives aiding him get stuck like animal flesh. “Ghost’s” bloody attacks have to match the over-the-top madness of the Vikings against him. The violence that dominates this narrative rarely registers as exciting, but veers toward the sadistic. Should the film find a way to use gore effectively, it feels the need to push the boundaries further, until we witness a scene where a native is drawn and quartered as the Norse barbarians laugh at their spectacle.
While the premise sounds like an action pic akin Mel Gibson’s “Apocalypto,” Nispel can’t realize the suspense for his revenge plot. The filmmakers were wise enough to minimize the horrendous dialogue – though we have enough to imagine a full-scale parody of Russell Crowe in “Gladiator.” And Nispel sure gives “Ghost” something to fight for in the form of Starfire (a breathtaking Moon Bloodgood), though both are better suited for the cover of a romance novel. The fault here lies in the film’s dead rhythm, which never lights the sparks necessary for an action film. The plot and action progress like an eroding lakeshore, but the energy and excitement are washed away in every scene.