Fans of classic science fiction know very well who Philip Jose Farmer is. Chances are you have read one of his many Riverworld novels going back to the early 1970’s. It’s absolutely required reading for any fan of the genre. When you think of those classic book series, this one stands right up there with Asimov’s Foundation books or Frank Herbert’s Dune series. I’ve only read the first novel, but remember it still. It’s an enchanting world that I always meant to return to one day. That day hadn’t yet come by the time I received this DVD release of SYFY’s latest take on the work. I’m sad to say that even after watching this 3 hour mini-series, that day still hasn’t come.
It’s not that this is necessarily a bad film. It’s actually not bad at all. It’s just not very good. More importantly, it’s really not much like the Riverworld I recall. The basic idea is actually all that remains from Farmer’s works. Riverworld is a planet that contains 20 million miles of river, hence the name. When people die, they are resurrected along the banks of this river system. Here you might find anyone from any time. Time travels in its own fashion here. Two people who die at exactly the same moment might find themselves on Riverworld years apart from each other. It appears to be random. All of this is in the original books. Nothing else from this film is to be found, at least in any recognizable form, in the novels.
Matt (Penikett) is a war correspondent. He has been to some of the most dangerous war zones on the planet. He has just returned from one of these assignments and is attending a celebration with some of his friends at a hot nightclub. There he intends to propose to his girlfriend Jessie (Vandervoort). But a young Asian girl has been recruited as a human bomb and ends the celebration killing everyone in the club, including Matt and Jessie. Matt soon finds himself on a table where a blue-skinned alien appears to be glad to have found him. The next thing he knows he is under water fighting to get to the surface of a river. Once done, he meets some of his friends from the club. They realize they must be dead but are confused as to where they are now. It isn’t until Matt meets the ancient warrior woman Tomoe (Goossen) that he begins to understand something about where they are. Matt finds himself in a war between two factions of the aliens who run this place. One group wants it destroyed, and their champion is the famous explorer Richard Burton (Wingfield). The other faction wants to continue the place as a second chance for humans to redeem their lives. They have chosen Matt as their champion. But all Matt wants to do is find Jessie.
The people here are banded, which allows them to retrieve meals once a day from power stations spread throughout the world. But Matt, like his nemesis Burton, is not banded, identifying them as chosen by one faction or another of the aliens. It appears that Jessie is also a key to this struggle, which helps Matt to decide to play his part. He’s helped also by a certain Sam Clemens (Deklin) and his homemade riverboat, the Not For Hire. It’s Matt’s group against Burton’s to determine the fate of Riverworld forever.
Taking on this kind of a project is pretty much a no-win situation for all involved. A series of books so rich in material as the Riverworld works is impossible to translate on the screen. It’s the same problem that has befallen filmmakers who have tried to bring Herbert’s Dune series to the screen, large or small. You simply can’t even incorporate the basic principles, let alone try to tell a story faithful to the work. Here they tried by attempting a pretty much original story that plays out in that universe. It plays out like some epic adventure but looks too much like a television series. None of the high concepts that Farmer explored appear to be at play here. It’s a quest film with the usual mundane obstacles in the hero’s journey. The characters are compelling enough, but the script is very weak. It’s bloated to fill the necessary three hours and never portrays the sense of urgency the premise demands. The end is such a letdown. It appears there wasn’t really any urgency at all, and nothing we saw really mattered in the end. Well, thanks for telling me AFTER I spent three hours watching. Thank you very much. So, I’m telling you. I’m sure you can catch it on SYFY again at some point anyway.
Riverworld is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.78:1. I suspect the film is faithful to its broadcast. There is a Blu-ray, and I’m disappointed we weren’t given that version to review. This presentation is rather mundane, replete with compression problems. The color is fine at times, and there are some rather nice scenery shots. Black levels are completely average at best. It’s a lot to cram on one standard DVD. Perhaps the Blu-ray was better. I likely will never know.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 track serves the dialog. Nothing more. Nothing less.
Behind The Scenes With Alan Cumming: (2:45) This is merely a look at the blue makeup.
SYFY attempted the story back in 2003 with less than stellar results. This film is indeed better than that effort, but it’s still not Riverworld. The ending is an obvious set-up for a potential series. Even though the television airing did get good ratings, the word of mouth hasn’t been that good. It would be an expensive show to produce, and I’m dubious of the kind of quality SYFY might invest in it. So, in the end you have a film that appears to do nothing more than set up a series that doesn’t look like it’s going to happen. “So why are we on this journey?”