My notes on two adaptations of Philip José Farmer’s Riverworld series.
Given the premise of Philip José Farmer’s Riverworld novels, I was expecting this to be the first part of a miniseries, but it’s actually a stand-alone feature cobbled together loosely from the first two novels (To Your Scattered Bodies Go, The Fabulous Riverboat) and ends with a few set-up bits suggesting either further cable features or a continuing series. The adaptation by Stuart Hazeldine hammers the material into action-adventure shape, inventing a 21st Century two-fisted astronaut hero (Brad Johnson) to replace Farmer’s use of Sir Richard Burton, replacing King John with Emperor Nero (Jonathan Cake) because Ancient Rome is way cooler in movie terms than the Middle Ages just now, using many of Farmer’s supporting cast, including Alice Hargreaves (Emily Lloyd) and Sam Clemens (Cameron Daddo) – identifying the latter as Mark Twain but not the former as Alice in Wonderland – and a couple of his creations, like holocaust victim Lev (Jeremy Birchall) and alien Monat (Brian Moore), but playing down the ‘famous resurectee’ angle (which admittedly might have overcrowded the piece) as well as the ‘why are we here’ business.
Shot in New Zealand (like too much fantasy TV), it has a huge landscape to play with but here we only see one small stretch of the river (with prophetic glimpses of the frozen North) with not-that-great CGI flame-spouting alien towers laid in. It opens with Farmer’s awesome central idea, of the whole human race being resurrected on an alien world, as Johnson wades ashore ahead of a whole crowd of variously-panicky or bewildered randomly-assorted people (including a neanderthal) and various people introduce themselves and their belief systems (enlightened democrats are in a tiny minority) but then a local tyrant (Kevin Smith) shows up and impresses everyone into slavery and we’re down to a regulation TV series vision of a s-f primitive society (gladiatorial combat, snarling kings on skull-decorated thrones, slaves in cages making escapes) and melodramatic bits about betrayals and reversals. The enmity between Johnson and Cake, and Daddo’s decision to turn over his riverboat to Johnson’s quest upriver, are the plot motor for this movie and the hinge that would allow sequels.
Unusually, this really could do with more talk and less action. Directed by Kari Skoglund. It’d be nice to see more, but a major overhaul would be needed to help this live upto its potential. And, let’s face it, things don’t usually improve between pilot and series.
Six years after the New Zealand-shot SyFy Channel pilot, this two-part TV movie made in Canada reboots the whole thing and starts again – but similarly doesn’t get its head round Philip José Farmer’s huge, challenging series. It makes some of the same mistakes as the earlier version and, though it has more running time, still can’t get a grip on the premise – which it doesn’t seem to understand. Kaj Skoglund’s 2003 Riverworld was all set-up, but this tries to tell the whole story of what was initially a four-book sequence (extended to five), simplifying the alien involvement and not shutting down the possibility of follow-ups (which, so far, have not appeared). It opens in contemporary Singapore with a bunch of people made up by screenwriters Robert Hewitt Wolfe, Randall M. Badat and Hans Beimler being given thumbnail intros and then killed by a suicide bomber, only to be resurrected on Riverworld, where blue, robed aliens have brought all of humanity back to life in their thirtyish bodies (though this isn’t quite properly explained) and seemingly in their own clothes (including glasses).
The 2003 version wrote out Farmer’s lead, the historical Sir Richard Burton, and invented an American astronaut Brad Johnson could play … this shifts Burton (Peter Wingfield) to ambiguous antagonist and makes up two-fisted American war correspondent Matt Ellman for Tahmoh Penikett to play. Burton and Ellman and a few other key players are resurrected without ‘grail bands’ – bracelets that work food-dispensing machines on the river banks – and are coached by blue aliens (including Alan Cumming) to work against each other. Various objectives – including a search for the source of the river, a quest to destroy the world, Ellman’s need to get back with the girlfriend (Laura Vandervoot) who has been with Burton, already-in-progress feuds between secondary characters – are raised, but none really take fire. Sam Clemens (Mark Deklin) turns up in his riverboat and is battling with Pizarro (Bruce Ramsay) – replacing King John, who was replaced with Nero last time out – with his own bunch of supporting characters, including bright spark Romina D’Ugo as a Venetian courtesan and poisoner. Matt’s crew include sidekick Simon (Arnold Pinnock), who tells him the world ended six years after he was killed, and mediaeval Japanese heroine Tomoe Gozen (Jeananne Goossen).
It’s established that folks killed here get resurrected again, and there’s some fuss about Tomoe taking ‘the suicide express’ at some point, but battles are still fought as if they were permanent and when Pizarro (or hordes of faceless guards) get killed, they are just out of the story. The new material raises some interesting points – the suicide bomber shattered to be revived along with her victims somewhere that isn’t the paradise she was promised and then sacrificing herself, the middle-aged gay couple who get young again and are separated but reunited then dropped from the story – but the few characters taken from the books aren’t especially well used. Farmer addresses the question of where the guns and swords come from, but this is skimmed over here – and the brief appearance of a fusion-powered CGI Zeppelin is simply confusing. Cast obviously out of Canada. Directed by Stuart Gillard.