Phillip Jose Farmer’s Riverworld novels were released in the ’70s and early ’80s and developed a dedicated fan base. The SyFy network (then Sci-Fi) aired a 90-minute film adaptation in 2003 starring veteran TV actor Brad Johnson. Set up as a pilot for a series that never was created, the movie failed on nearly every level.
Seven years later, the network decided to give it another shot, this time with a four-hour miniseries. Once again, the feature was prepared to possibly spawn a regular series. Battlestar Galactica‘s Tahmoh Penikett stars in this version, which introduces an otherworldly setting and a large group of diverse characters.
Premiering in April, Riverworld generates an intriguing setting that raises questions about the afterlife, free will and possible alien influence. This environment is mostly just the set-up for a standard action picture. Its style resembles many of the Saturday night B-movies airing on SyFy, but without the ridiculous CGI monsters. The stakes are high and could affect the fate of all humanity, though it’s hard not to lose sight of that within all this silliness. When you have Alan Cumming slumming it as a conniving blue-skinned alien, the result is almost guaranteed to be comical.
Penikett stars as Matt Ellman, a war reporter who’s worked in some of the nastiest zones imaginable, including Chechnya. He’s found love with his girlfriend Jessie Machalan (Laura Vandervoort) during a brief courtship, and they’re celebrating in what turns out to be the wrong nightclub in Singapore. A suicide bomber demolishes the joint and ends their lives, along with scores of others.
Ellman wakes up in the Riverworld, an afterlife that apparently holds everyone who’s ever lived on Earth. They also revert back to their young adult selves. Separated from his girl, Ellman searches diligently for any sign of her existence in this strange new place.
The hero of the original Farmer novels was Sir Richard Burton, the British explorer. There is a Burton character here, but he’s actually the primary villain. Familiar genre player Peter Wingfield brings an intensity to Burton that’s missing from the rest of the tale. It’s not entirely clear if this character was once a hero and grew bitter in Riverworld, but that’s the implication. The writers introduce some intriguing shades of gray to Burton near the end, which makes the conflict a bit murkier. However, there’s too much stereotypical villainy on display to make him a truly memorable figure.
This setting gives the filmmakers a chance to bring famous historical characters into the mix, and they make two well-known choices, with varying success. The vicious conquistador Francisco Pizarro (Bruce Ramsay) introduces some terror to the first part and locks up Ellman. Sadly, this under-written role turns the conqueror of the Incas into a one-note enemy. Contrastingly, Mark Deklin brings the right mix of charm and fun to Samuel Clemens, who commands a grand riverboat. Some viewers might not enjoy his odd accent and purposeful wit, but it actually works in this unusual setting.
The overall plot isn’t easy to explain in this brief review, but here’s a quick summary. Burton is determined to locate the river’s source, which holds the key to destroying the entire world. His path is helped by Cumming’s alien, who opposes the Caretakers that created this environment. Ellman is chosen as a champion to oppose Burton, though his primary concern is finding his girlfriend. They battle several times along the way, eventually leading to a final conflict with the fate of the world hanging in the balance.
Ellman’s joined in this quest by the attractive samurai Tomoe Gozen (Jeananne Goossen) and a random gang of other pals. She’s a better companion for Ellman than the dull Machalan, who has no personality. There’s actual chemistry between the two warriors, which makes his insistence on finding his old girlfriend even more maddening. This is the major flaw of the entire story and generates more frustration than any silly plot elements. It’s possible this was set up to become a love triangle during a regular series, but it makes little sense in a standalone feature.
I’ve never read the original Farmer novels but am curious about many of the filmmakers’ decisions. Director Stuart Gillard and a trio of writers aim for both action and mystery but deliver a jumbled mess instead. A DVD commentary or interview would have given them a chance to explain their creative choices. Unfortunately, this release only contains the trailer and a brief featurette showing Cumming receiving the blue make-up. It’s a disappointing omission from this bare-bones release.
This Riverworld reboot improves on the 2003 version, but that’s no grand achievement. The first half concludes with an energetic battle scene, and there’s some promise for the second portion. That momentum quickly grounds to a halt during some lengthy torture scenes. Even when the heroes commandeer a zeppelin to chase Burton, the excitement is long gone. The final conflict introduces some interesting concepts about possible reasons for the Riverworld’s existence. However, revealing them after nearly three hours is far too late in the game.
Can Farmer’s novels actually translate into the visual medium? After two failed attempts, I’m not sure it’s possible. The setting is so broad that it’s suited for an ongoing series of novels. It would take a strong, original vision to transcend the limitations of the source material. For example, characters who die on Riverworld do return at a different place down the river. This is a compelling idea for a book series, but it removes the dramatic tension in the film when a hero is gunned down. It’s unlikely a network will try again to overcome these challenges and bring Farmer’s ideas to the screen.