Riverworld -- TV Review



Meandering over four hours, flowing in every direction, Syfy's "Riverworld" is a lot like the river around which it is set -- a twisting tale without a well-defined beginning or end.

Most longform programs executive produced by Robert Halmi Sr. and Robert Halmi Jr. are crafted for an international market. They are heavy on action, special effects and attractive stars and skimp on clever dialogue, skillful plotting and character development. In that sense, "Riverworld" does not disappoint. In every other sense, it does.

The movie, based on a series of novels by Philip Jose Farmer, starts in a crowded bar in Singapore. That's where TV correspondent Matt Ellman (Tahmoh Penikett) is about to propose marriage to Jessie, an Asian tour guide he has known for all of two months. Her delight turns to shock when she spies a woman nearby sporting a vest of explosives and reaching for the button.

Just barely after the last opening credit, Matt, Jessie and an assortment of friends are blown to Kingdom Come. In this case, Kingdom Come is the banks of a river where time follows no logical pattern, where people from other centuries are simultaneously reborn and where humans are the pawns of observer-caretaker aliens who look like refugees from the Blue Man Group.

In this Kafka-esque world of violence amid natural splendor, all of the people are young adults. Anyone past the desired Nielsen demo has been youth-anized back to an earlier time in their lives. Those who didn't speak English in their previous lives conveniently speak it now, albeit with varying degrees of accents.

The reincarnated souls haven't a clue where they are, how they got there or what they're supposed to do next. And (spoiler alert) they're not going to get much closer to finding out when this film mercifully lurches to an end. Some will get threatened with death, though, in a place where rebirth is a near certainty, that doesn't seem like much of a threat.

Matt searches for Jessie, who might be a captive of the villain, Richard Burton (Peter Wingfield). Except that Burton isn't all bad. He thinks Riverworld is a place of unending suffering and, when he's not contributing to it, he wants to end it.

Matt, on the other hand, sides with the blue people, who see Riverworld as a place where humanity can be reborn (and reborn and reborn) until they get it right. He makes a few allies, including riverboat captain Samuel "Mark Twain" Clemens (Mark Deklin), and upriver they go, as if following a liquid yellow brick road.

Although it is hard to single out any character as being more one-dimensional than the rest, the attempt to embrace the humor and wisdom of Twain is particularly pathetic, if only because of the injustice it does to this literary legend.

The story feels as if it was written as the film was shot. The fight choreography lacks the finesse of shows at Knott's Berry Farm and the dialogue sounds like the work of a committee. Not that this will come as a surprise to Syfy, which wisely elected to burn it off on a single night.

Airdate: 7-11 p.m. Sunday, April 18 (Syfy)

Production: Reunion Pictures in association with RHI Entertainment
Executive producers: Robert Halmi Sr., Robert Halmi Jr., Matthew O'Connor, Tom Rowe
Producer: Michael O'Connor
Director: Stuart Gillard
Teleplay: Robert Wolfe, Randall Badat
Story: Robert Wolfe, Hans Beimler
Based on novels by: Philip Jose Farmer
Director of photography: Thomas Burstyn
Production designer: Michael Joy
Editor: James R. Symons
Music: James Guttridge
Set decorator: Mark Lane
Costumes: Nancy Bryant
Casting: Stuart Aikins, Sean Cossey, Lynn Kressel, Kevin Kuffa
Cast: Tahmoh Penikett, Mark Deklin, Jeananne Goossen, Peter Wingfield, Romina D'Ugo, Arnold Pinnock, Laura Vandervoort, Alan Cumming, Thea Gill, Meg Roe, Bruce Ramsay