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STUDIO: Vivendi Entertainment
RATED: Not Rated
RUNNING TIME: 178 minutes
• Behind the Scenes with Alan Cumming
Lost is already on the air, and we can’t afford to option The Dark Tower series, so let’s find the closest inexpensive property we can strip mine to make a similar program. We can save money by getting that Battlestar Galactica actor to star in it. No, not that guy. Not that guy either. The other guy. The other other guy. Actually, that guy has a cameo, but guess again. One last try. Nevermind.
The growing pods for all those hot twenty-something Survivor contestants
Tahmoh Penikett, Mark Deklin, Jeananne Goossen, Laura Vandervoort
Tahmoh Penikett and on-screen fiancée Laura Vandervoort get blown up in Singapore, and defy death with the same level of success to which they defy spell-check. Penikett, playing journalist Matt Ellman, wakes up in a strange, alien planet so exotic that you would need to travel at least 20 or perhaps even 23 minutes to see a similar vista on planet Earth. You will be unsurprised to learn that this place is a world covered in rivers. If George Lucas had known this naming convention was acceptable, the entire first act of The Empire Strikes Back would have taken place on Snow Globe.
Okay, how do I not make a Short Round joke?
With his omnipresent pugilistic teeth-grinding and bizarre Al Pacino strut (one knows it when one sees it) Matt realizes that this bizarre new land* is populated entirely by people who have died. Some are more famous than others, but most seem to have been resurrected at their most camera-ready (Mark Deklin’s Samuel Clemens** for instance, probably never looked quite so much like a Grecian-formulaic Casper Van Dien as he does here). These fellow travelers come from all times and cultures. All speak English. Of course.
Yeah, it looks kinda awesome. Don’t be fooled.
Though his primary objective is finding his fiancée Jessie (played by Vandervoort’s improbable eye/cheekbone/chin ratio), Matt allies with Samuel Clemens, a.k.a. Mark Twain and famous female samurai Tomoe Gozen (played by Olivia Munn-a-like Jeananne Goossen) to chase (and by chase, I mean “meander disjointedly in the general direction of) Richard Burton (Peter Wingfield), who is the bad guy because he is British, and because randomly manifesting blue people say he is. Yup.
Will these storylines converge by the end of the third hour? Why are Matt and the others here? Who brought them? Who are these blue people who show up intermittently to help/constrain/waterboard the main characters seemingly at random? How many different ways can Matt ask supporting characters “Is this really happening?” How much skin is that Allegra chick gonna show? All these questions and/or less will be answered in Riverworld.
Trying to be diplomatic and bearing in mind that mini-series are allegedly created by people with passion and skill, I asked myself during 150ish of the 178 minutes of Riverworld, what was the most recent point of its development process that this still seemed like a good idea? Was it before or after the script shredded the source material? Was it before or after the post-production people settled on using a Windows 98 flowerbox screen-saver as a prominently recurring visual effect? Was it before or after the parties involved realized that Sci-Fi had already tried launching Riverworld with a mini-series in 2003 (with predictable results)?
Certainly, it was before the latter seasons of Lost, with which it bares stunning similarities (that, in fairness, the writers of Lost must be faulted for, since Riverworld’s source material precedes it by over three decades). If you have seen Lost, it is virtually impossible not to repeatedly think of it while watching Riverworld. While I won’t deconstruct the matter further here, the topic is well-tread upon and easy to find, should you (should you?) decide to research it further.
Proof that Pee Wee and Jambi mated
Whoever or whatever is to blame, Riverworld is a chore to sit through; one of those products that exists slightly above laughably bad but just below divertingly watchable. It simply… happens, daring you to continue watching for about three hours. Characters seem to lack the ability to proactively find answers or solutions (a similarity with Lost that I can’t help but mention), which is particularly damnable in the case of journalist Matt Essman. Almost all of the action takes place in nondescript forests, waterways or caves, including the several confusing scenes in which Matt is questioned, tortured, chastised or preached to by the blue people, who are such a question mark that they would be more effective if they were absent.
The acting is difficult to judge, considering the blandness of the writing, but is likely to meet your expectations for a mini-series. Penikett, who was well-used on Battlestar Galactica, is not ready to play a three-dimensional leading man (thankfully Riverworld doesn’t have one). Standing tall-ish in a criminally thankless role is Mark Deklin as Samuel Clemens. He does exude some of the dry wittiness you would expect of Mark Twain, but let’s face it: when you write the greatest American storyteller who ever lived into your fiction, you’d better bring it; Suffice it to say that the three credited writers left it at home. Other characters seem to be little more than clichéd cultural traits, repetitive exposition and muddled accents (I’m looking squarely at Jeananne Goossen, who is so unconvincingly Japanese that her name may as well be Jeananne Goosen).
The pointless nudity clause in Vandervoort’s standard contract is thankfully honored.
Whether by lazy writing or poor editing, logical inconsistencies abound in Riverworld. Many complex machines and goods are claimed to have been produced with a lot of good ole-fashioned elbow grease. Things like… a riverboat (with fully stocked gambling tables), cutlery, battle-gear, zeppelins, rocket-propelled-grenades, fine wines, cooking utensils and another riverboat identical to the first one. I guess everything was whittled. And yet all characters seem to be confined to whatever outfit they brung with ‘em. Unless they’re in disguise as a soldier, which I suppose makes perfect sense to a person knocking out a weeks-overdue teleplay at 3:21 a.m., but less sense to someone trying desperately to occupy their mind during hour three of Riverworld.
“Look, it’s just not going to work between us, Blob. I’m currently on two television series,
and the last time you had a starring role was 1988!”
Most frustratingly, Riverworld steps up its game on almost every level in the last half-hour, as a reward, I suppose, for people willing to suffer the preceding 2.5 hours. The special effects, acting, writing, fight choreography, photography, and set design all improve noticeably once the action shifts to the – I shit-you-not – Dark Tower. Although there is a chance that my assessment of the quality may have been tainted at my exuberance about soon being able to begin my post-watching-Riverworld life.
[SPOILER] The Big Bad Guy is Dr. Wily. [END SPOILER]
Finally, there is one laugh-out-loud hilarious moment to be had during the 178 minute running time of Riverworld. At the 2:11 mark (or Netflix Instant: Riverworld Pt. 2, 45:00 in.. you’re welcome), four of our main characters navigate up a treacherous mountain, inexplicably choosing to do so inches from the edge. Suddenly, several puzzlingly edited frames of blue Alan Cumming cause one traveler to slip and fall to his doom. This is the typical and proper reaction to Alan Cumming, but not the funniest part. While two of the survivors look on with mild curiosity at their friend’s pulverized body, Sam Clemens’ grief manifests as a zero-to-sixty, heavens-cursing freak-out that begins with him shouting, “What do you want from us!? It doesn’t make any sense!” continues with him deciding passively to “just sit here for a while, and look out at the world,” and then concludes… 24 seconds later… with him standing back up, relieved of his grief and totally over the whole looking-out-on-the-world thing.
Okay, two hilarious moments if you count the quick-to-evaporate backstory that has a little girl getting run over by Matt’s car. Don’t judge me unless you can watch it yourself without laughing.
Look, Foley, you can only put so many bananas in so many tailpipes
before someone gets fed up and cracks your goddam skull.
Presentation is competent. Nothing noteworthy here and honestly, haven’t I already made you read enough about Riverworld for one lifetime?
Special Features include a trailer and the very interestingly titled “Behind The Scenes With Alan Cumming.” I suppose the less interesting but slightly more accurate title “Three Minute Video of Alan Cumming Getting Painted Blue” was not gonna dupe a lot of extra folks into buying the DVD.
Oooh… the cardstock outer-sleeve is embossed! Forget everything negative that I just said about the movie!
2.5 out of 10
**Smart readers will recognize him by his pen-name, Mark Twain. Dumb ones will recognize him from his pitching career for the Boston Yankees.