The Film (Miniseries):
There's really no reason why Riverworld, a second attempt from SyFy to take on Philip Jose Farmer's award-winning novels, shouldn't be great. Its other-worldly, socio-religious premise comes with pre-built speculation and theorizing, while also finding an ample environment to rope in Tahmoh Penikett of "Battlestar Galactica" fame and an excuse to get Alan Cumming from X2: X-Men United back in blue-face. Feudal Japanese samurai cross swords with Spanish Conquistadors. There are nuclear-powered steamboats and zeppelins. And, in a grand excuse of historically hair-brained splendor, Mark Twain himself delivers a comment to explorer Richard Burton that, for all intents and purposes, could be heard as an eloquent spin on the phrase, "I know what you are, but what am I?" See, just talking about it has me all riled up. On paper, it sounds like an ironclad framework for, at the very least, a grand sci-fi spectacle. But it isn't.
In the hands of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III (somewhat ironically titled "Turtles in Time") director Stuart Gillard, also an intermittent guiding force behind "One Tree Hill" and the new "Beverly Hills 90210", Riverworld slumps into three hours of cumbrous action, less-than-bland adaptive storytelling, and a string of poor dialogue that'll have you wanting to crawl the walls. It's a complex skeleton: war photographer Matt Ellman (Penikett, "Dollhouse"), after a terrorist suicide-bombs a club where he's about to propose to his girlfriend Jessie (Laura Vandervoort, "V"), is transported to a river bed with a slew of other clueless people. Quickly, all of these "survivors" determine that they've been resurrected, and that this endless river bank exists as their afterlife. All of them are wearing bracelets that activate a strange, ultramodern food bank that dishes out their food of choice (yep, grandma's cookies are replaced with meat loaf) -- except for Matt, who's free of this "grail band".
What's discovered, though he's only driven to find his almost-fiancé Jessie, is that Matt's been awakened as a "chosen" pawn in a civil war between this timeless world's "caretakers" -- blue-faced, robed aliens separated into "Salvationists", opponents to the world's reincarnation, and "Second Chancers", who wish to preserve this endless cycle. As he encounters a Buddhist monk/samurai (Jeananne Goossen, Breakfast with Scot) from Feudal Japan and other assorted good souls following his awakening, Matt immediately butts heads with a yet-unnamed antagonist (Peter Wingfield, "Highlander") with knowledge of Jessie's whereabouts and an onslaught of in-the-know Spanish Conquistadors demanding portions of everybody's food. He trades words with Francisco Pizarro, conqueror of South America, while eventually hooking up with dashing Sam Clemens on a river steamboat. All this surrounds his drive to find Jessie and, with Riverworld's caretaker giving directions, to kill the vile, mysterious man we'll learn to be explorer Richard Burton.
A great cast of science-fiction veterans congregate around Riverworld's premise, hallmarked by Tahmoh Penikett. Due to fandom swelling around the more widely-lauded stars in "Battlestar Galactica", it's possible to somewhat neglect Penikett's sturdy performance as Helo -- and his talent's carried over admirably here. Sure, he's essentially just regurgitating his namesake Lt. Agathon, along with a dash of Paul Ballard from "Dollhouse", but the high-octane force behind his growls and gruff vocals works in painting an appealing hero out of Matt. He also handles the physicality of his role too, calling for him to nail a few bursts of martial arts activity and wield a battle axe with assurance. Similar can be said for Peter Wingfield, better known for his role as Methos from several Highlander productions, who adds rays of legitimacy to Burton by straying little from his classic demeanor.
Yes, the performances from the leads -- and a few unconvincing yet charming splashes from the supporting cast -- work diligently to keep this two-part yarn from sinking, but the horrendous dialogue and poorly-orchestrated action, stretched across three bleedin' hours, work like a ton-measured weight strapped to Riverworld's ankle. As it attempts to seal up holes in the plot by offering answer after answer to the story's nuances with dialogue, often repeating material we can assume ourselves, it also interjects some uncomfortably bad one-liners and botched endeavors in character interchange. A scene where Mark Twain (Mark Deklin) gets in a verbal scuff with Richard Burton about his writing skills offers more discomfort than fun, the sneering vitriol spewing from Francisco Pizarro often infuriates with exaggerated candor, while the dreadfully awkward "bro" rapport between Matt and his journalism partner Simon (Arnold Pinnoch) stops the story's flow in its tracks without fail.
As it carries across its three-hour span, while Matt's hunt for Jessie and its metaphysical roots lose steam after roughly a third of the time, Stuart Gillard somehow finds a way to dampen Riverworld's prospective energy further -- even with abundant plot twists and rowdy, unrestrained action. Even as the
Hindenburg Herumfurzen soars through the air, a giant "dark tower" billows with negative energy, and historical content persistently crosses paths as we jump through time like frogs on lily pads, all while Matt barfs repeatedly and Alan Cumming's caretaker verbally beleaguers him, the production lacks any form of polished magnetism that would flow beyond that of a 90-minute film, if that. But that's almost the polar opposite course this production wishes to traverse; even at the end of 170+ minutes, with hopes that SyFy might've generated a similar reaction to that of its other flourishing sci-fi miniseries, it arrives at a fairly inconclusive, open-ended finale that would continue the characters proper through an eternal, series-long war between the alien caretakers. After all that, however, the last thing we need is even more Riverworld.
Video and Audio:
It'd be natural to assume the HD-shot Riverworld would contain a sustainably impressive image on Blu-ray, encapsulated here in this 1080p VC-1 image. It does, though it's not as flawless as one might expect. Skin textures are a shade on the smooth side -- presumably not from over-manipulation of textures via noise reduction (DNR), but likely limitations on the source data. Several textures, such as the burlap fabric on Burton's clothing and the multitude of intricate elements on Tomoe Gozen's armor, show off plenty of textural elements pleasing to the eye, though they're a bit flat in others. Blasts of color, including the electric blue faces of the caretakers, ooze with pleasing contrast fluctuations, though several of those shots are hazy and somewhat out-of-focus. A few other sequences offer high density of noise, including many of the distanced riverboat shots, while a bit of moire shimmering creaks up in a few spots. Overall, however, the spotlessly-clean image offers a pleasant enough experience, with a handful of attractive images to offset some of the wonky limitations.
Arriving with a DTS HD Master Audio track, the sound for Riverworld isn't unremarkable but satisfying enough -- just about like the visual quality. Some sound effects are flat and thin, like the splashing of water against oars on the river and the clanking of blades during a large battle, but the subtle rotating of the Hindenburg's rotors, the billowing whistle and the propulsion planks on the riverboat, and the galloping of hooves are natural and crisply attenuated. The stylish music actually dominates the rear channels, flooding with both mid-range and lower-pitched punches throughout. Along with satisfactory verbal clarity, this sound treatment will do just fine for the film's purposes. Optional English subtitles have been included to accompany the sole English Master Audio track.
Aside from a Trailer (1:53, SD) for Riverworld, we've also got a brief Behind the Scenes with Alan Cumming (2:43, HD) piece that is, essentially, just a few blurbs from the actor about his "turquoise" coloring and a time-lapsed slate of footage with him in the make-up chair.
Stuart Gillard's Riverworld takes a promising stance in adapting Philip Jose Farmer's novels for SyFy (again), yet it drowns itself by slathering together a two-part, three-hour mishmash of nerve-grinding dialogue, clumps of poor acting, and unremarkable action. It makes the production's successes, namely Tohmah Penikett's sturdy action-based presence, Peter Wingfield's villainous aura, and the compelling nature itself of reincarnation and an alien race's perception of the afterlife, mostly moot points amid these infuriating misfires. Skip It.
Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site