Riverworld (2010) poster

Riverworld (2010)


USA. 2010.


Director – Stuart Gillard, Teleplay – Randall Badat, Hans Beimler & Robert Wolfe, Story (Part 2) – Hans Beimler & Robert Wolfe, Based on the Books by Philip Jose Farmer, Producer – Michael O’Connor, Photography – Thomas Burstyn, Music – James Guttridge, Visual Effects Supervisor – Bruce Turner, Visual Effects – Five Visual Effects, Special Effects Supervisor – David Barkes, Production Design – Michael Joy. Production Company – Riverworld Productions Inc/RHI Entertainment/Reunion Pictures.


Tahmot Penikett (Matt Ellman), Mark Deklin (Samuel Clemens), Peter Wingfield (Sir Francis Richard Burton), Jeananne Goossen (Tomoe Gozen), Bruce Ramsay (Francisco Pizarro), Laura Vandervoort (Jessie Machalan), Romina Dugo (Allega Bracchioforte), Kwesi Ameyaw (Youseff Mbaye), Arnold Pinnock (Simon Moody), Chiara Zanni (Deborah Glass), Matthew McCall (Hal Douglas), Matty Finochio (Antonio Roja), Meg Roe (Amelie Faberge), Thea Gill (Female Caretaker), Alan Cumming (Judas Caretaker), Alex Zahara (Ludwig Dürr), Alessandro Juliani (Daniel Glass), Michael Adamthwaite (Evgeny), Terry Chen (Eddy Chen), Potjana Khongjaroen (Bomber)


Top cable news reporter Matt Ellman arrives in Singapore, making a surprise visit to his girlfriend, tour guide Jessie Machalan, intending to propose to her. Instead, they are killed as a suicide bomber detonates a bomb in the nightclub. Matt comes around on the bank of a river. Other members of the party are there but everybody, including the older people, is now around the same age. There are also people from different periods of history and all are able to understand one another. Everybody except Matt has a wristband that connects to grail machines that provide food. As they try to figure out where they are, the camp is invaded and overthrown by Conquistadors led by Francisco Pizarro, who is aided by the 19th Century British explorer Richard Burton. Matt realises that Burton knows Jessie. Matt is then contacted by mysterious blue-skinned aliens who are at civil war among their factions and try to guide him to aid their enigmatic purposes. Matt is invited aboard the riverboat Not For Hire built and captained by Samuel Clemens aka Mark Twain. Burton manages to capture the riverboat and sets out to find the Dark Tower at the river’s source. Matt, Clemens and the rest of the party, though separated, set out on an epic journey to prevent Burton from destroying the Riverworld.

Philip Jose Farmer’s Riverworld books are science-fiction classics. The first properly published work was the short story Riverworld (1966), which tells the story of a less-than-divine Jesus Christ reborn on the Riverworld. The series proper began with the novel To Your Scattered Bodies Go (1971), which won the Hugo Award for Best Science-Fiction Novel that year. Farmer followed this with four other novels, The Fabulous Riverboat (1971), The Dark Design (1977), The Magic Labyrinth (1980) and The Gods of Riverworld (1983), and later sharecropped the universe to allow other writers to use it in two short story collections Tales of Riverworld (1992) and Quest to Riverworld (1993). The basic premise of the books is that aliens have resurrected every human ever born on a vast planet that consists of one long river. The reasons for this are unknown but various characters, led by 19th Century British explorer Richard Burton and writer Samuel Clemens, along with an enormous backdrop of figures taken from history, set out aboard a riverboat captained by Clemens to discover what is at the end of the river and the purpose for the Riverworld’s creation.

The film rights to the Riverworld series have floated around various hands since the 1980s. The books were eventually filmed as a feature-length tv pilot Riverworld (2003) from Sci-Fi Pictures, a company that makes movies for The Sci-Fi Channel. This version conducted an abortion of the books, throwing out (like this version also does) Farmer’s hero Richard Burton in favour of a generic American lead of no historical significance. The writers and director seemed to have no feel for what Philip Jose Farmer was trying to do in mixing up various historical characters and the idea of their giant existential quest. The pilot felt like someone had randomly selected elements from a cursory reading of the books and then made up their own story.

This was the second attempt to conduct Riverworld for television in a four-hour mini-series also made for the Sci-Fi Channel (now, for reasons known only to them, rebranded as the Syfy Channel) at the behest of many of the people who used to form Hallmark Entertainment. The director chosen for the job was Stuart Gillard who also made such genre entries as the Disney tv movie Return of the Shaggy Dog (1987), Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III (1993), the Mars mission comedy RocketMan (1997), the monster tv mini-series Creature (1998), the Disney Channel films The Scream Team (2002), Twitches (2005) and Twitches Too (2007) and Avalon High (2010), the remake of The Initiation of Sarah (2006), WarGames: The Dead Code (2008) and tv movie Girl vs Monster (2012).

Tahmot Penikett) and Jeananne Goossen in Riverworld (2010)
Matt Ellman (Tahmot Penikett) and the female samurai Tomoe Gozen (Jeananne Goossen)

After watching Riverworld 2010, one only shakes their head and wonders how, after being granted the rights to a series of books that hold massive potential and an enormously original idea, an entirely different creative team could still screw everything up a second time – and in fairly much the same ways that Riverworld 2003 did. Again, the writers make a complete abortion out of Philip Jose Farmer’s saga, randomly selecting elements and downplaying the cross-historical premise. Again, Philip Jose Farmer’s hero has been dumped and recast with a bland contemporary American character (Tahmoh Penikett, a genre tv regular in Battlestar Galactica (2003-9) and Dollhouse (2009-10) who does his best to look bull-headededly determined and hot under the collar).

Farmer’s hero Richard Burton does appear this time, however has now been rewritten as the villain of the show (Peter Wingfield as yet another cliche villain with a British accent) as opposed to the hero. Indeed, the characterisation is so poor and we are told so little about Burton that we are never even sure if this is meant to be Richard Burton the explorer or Richard Burton the actor. Everything smacks of dragging stories into contemporary relevance for today’s zero-attention span audience. (Mention of 00s political events run throughout the series with 9/11 references – “That’s one of the junior partners in my law firm – he worked on the 85th floor of the second tower”, while Tahmoh Penikett is killed in an obvious simulation of the Bali nightclub bombing and we even see him undergoing an alien version of waterboarding at one point).

There is marginally more of the Riverworld books in the 2010 tv version than the 2003 version – there is a Richard Burton, a Samuel Clemens, there are the grails and mention of the Suicide Express, there are the aliens (now referred to as The Caretakers rather than The Ethicals and in laughable blue-skin makeup), there is a riverboat, which does get to be named the Not For Hire, an airship and the Dark Tower. It is just that they bear almost no resemblance to the way that Philip Jose Farmer wrote them. The second part of the mini-series does vaguely follow the plots of The Dark Design and The Magic Labyrinth in the race of the riverboat and airship to get to the Dark Tower. However, it is feels as though the filmmakers have taken about a single chapter’s worth of material from the two books and discarded everything else. The Dark Tower has laughably been designed akin to one of the Two Towers in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002), malevolently hovering over the landscape and belching an almost supernatural cloud of black smoke.

Peter Wingfield as Richard Burton in Riverworld (2010)
Peter Wingfield as Richard Burton, Philip Jose Farmer’s hero now rewritten as the villain of the show, with the riverboat Not For Hire in the background

There is an equal amount of Philip Jose Farmer’s material that has simply been ditched. In the books, everybody emerged from the river simultaneously, randomly distributed along the riverbanks and naked; here they emerge in the clothes they died in, in rough groups of the same people they died with and often at intervals staggered years apart. In comes a bunch of new plotting, all tired and hackneyed. The language problems that would exist between people of different eras is dismissed with a magic wave of the wand. The hero is now on a vital quest to find the love of his life (Alexandra Vandervoort) and the story keeps hinting that finding her is of great importance to the aliens’ schemes – although when we eventually meet her again, we find out that this is only because the evil Richard Burton has seemingly charmed her.

One of the crucial aspects of the books was that there was no iron on the Riverworld, thus preventing the development of weapons and heavy industry, until one of the traitor aliens diverted an iron-rich meteorite to land on the world; here the mini-series has the Conquistadors with swords and armour, while Samuel Clemens has built his riverboat with no explanation of how, which Philip Jose Farmer never has him doing until the second book – if iron and the industry to make things is so plentiful, why do we not have cities instead of 18th Century era forts and encampments, for example? There are also robotic horses on the world in a twist that is never explained.

Philip Jose Farmer’s massive panoply of characters taken from history have been almost completely written out – aside from Samuel Clemens and Richard Burton, the single other character that appeared in the books is the female samurai Tomoe Gozen, who here is pumped up into a major character. The only other real-life historical characters that we meet are the Conquistador Francisco Pizarro and Hindenburg designer Ludwig Dürr who both notedly did not appear in any of the books. Both of these adaptations of Riverworld seem to be versions of the story written by and for people who know nothing or could not care less about history – one of the points that Philip Jose Farmer made was that the majority of the characters in the books had been taken from some point in history. Farmer’s multiple intersecting storylines following the various historical characters and their fights and double-dealings could have made for an amazing tv series along the lines of tv’s Lost (2004-10) and it almost makes you cry seeing how far short this falls from the original conception.

Alan Cumming as one of The Caretakers in Riverworld (2010)
Alan Cumming as one of The Caretakers, Philip Jose Farmer’s Ethicals rewritten as absurd blue-skinned aliens

Certainly, Riverworld 2010 has some impressive names on the credits, including Hans Beimler who had written and produced numerous episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-94), Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (1993-9), The Dresden Files (2007-8) and The Middleman (2008) and Robert Hewitt Wolfe who had worked as writer and producer on The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Andromeda (2000-5), The 4400 (2004-7), The Gates (2010) and Elementary (2012– ). You feel that with such credits between them the two of them, they should know a few things about writing decent science-fiction for television. However, the dialogue is frequently awful. The character of Tomoe talks in absurd Zen epigrams – “The road we walk was built with the stones that scar our feet”. Peter Wingfield shoulders the lion’s share of bad dialogue: “If pigs had wings, they’d be eagles. To me, it’s still just a pig.” Burton and Clemens exchange excruciatingly clunky witticisms: “You know I read one of your books. It was amateurish, unnecessarily crude and pathetically self-congratulatory.” “I’m confused. Are you talking about my work or yours?”

Everything is blandly directed by Stuart Gillard, a director whose only recognisable style is his almost complete indifference to the material he turns out. The worst part of the mini-series is the ending. [PLOT SPOILERS]. Burton plans to blow up the entire planet with a fusion reactor from the riverboat, Tahmoh Penikett tries to stop him and the two of them struggle on the edge of the tower. The two Caretakers sit back and compare the conflict to a chess game and then in another piece of gratingly awful dialogue turn and ask whose move it is next. Tahmoh appeals to Alexandra Vandervoort as to whether she wants to join Burton or him, she appears confused whereupon a Caretaker UFO appears (in a bad optical effect) and Burton randomly decides to blow it up. Tahmoh Penikett is killed in the explosion but then wakes up on a riverbank beside Tomoe just as the riverboat appears around the corner with all the others aboard where Clemens improbably reveals that he has spent eight years travelling the world just to reunite them.

The characters and acting are mostly unexceptional when they are not badly underdeveloped. The mini-series’ one success is Mark Deklin as Samuel Clemens. As opposed to the laughable portrait offered by Cameron Daddo in the 2003 version, this Clemens comes with an authentic Southern accent, charm and wit – he has been incarnated as a real ladies’ man. Most of the rest of the cast are selected from Canadian-shot US television. Alexandra Vandervoort makes for an incredibly bland heroine – when it comes to the big showdown between Matt and Burton, her blankness is ridiculous when you consider that this is someone that Burton is prepared to destroy the world for. One can only celebrate the fact that Riverworld 2010 does not appear to have been picked up as a series. There is still potential out there for a decent version to be made of the Philip Jose Farmer books some day but one’s hopes do not exactly run high.

Trailer here

Mini-series online in several parts beginning here:-

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