Up THE RIVER without a you-know-what…
By Mark Onspaugh
Rivers make swell metaphors. Whether one is journeying through the life of Samuel Clemens (aka Mark Twain) in Life on the Mississippi (1883) or into hearts of darkness and minds of madness with Colonel Kurtz in APOCALYPSE NOW (1979), a river can provide all sorts of archetypes and enough nifty symbols for Carl Jung and John Campbell to go mano-a-mano, with Terrence Malick refereeing, and Freud and Fellini cheering them on.
THE RIVER is an ABC mid-season replacement series starring Bruce Greenwood (of NOWHERE MAN, 1995-96, BELOW, 2002, JOHN FROM CINCINNATI, 2007 and STAR TREK 2009). Greenwood is Dr. Emmet Cole, the much-beloved host and star of the nature series “The Undiscovered Country.” America and much of the world has grown up with the series, armchair crew members as Cole journeys across the globe with his wife Tess (Leslie Hope of 24, 2001-2002 and FAUX BABY 2008) and his son Lincoln (Joe Anderson of THE RUINS, 2008, THE CRAZIES, 2010 and THE GREY, 2012). The Coles are the perfect family, traveling to exotic places and teaching their audience about nature and ecology. The show seems very much modeled on the late Steve Irwin’s CROCODILE HUNTER (1997-2004), although silverbacks like me will recall the 60s travelogue series, THREE PASSPORTS TO ADVENTURE, with the Linker family (Hal, Halla and son David). Dr. Cole’s signature line is “There’s magic out there!”
Now son Lincoln Cole is all grown up and in med school, both worshipping his father and hating him for making their lives a televised fishbowl. His father disappeared some six months ago in the Amazon and is presumed dead, but suddenly a signal is received from a rescue beacon. An expedition to find Cole and his ship, The Magus, is put together by Tess and Emmet’s producer and friend Clark Quietly (Paul Blackthorne from one of my past favorites: THE DRESDEN FILES, 2007-2008, and THE GATES, 2010). Also aboard are son Lincoln; lovely Lena Landry, daughter of a missing cameraman (Eloise Mumford from CRASH, 2008 and LONE STAR, 2010); mechanic Emilio Valenzuela (Daniel Zacapa of SE7EN, 1995, FALLEN ANGELS , 2006 and FLASHFORWARD, 2009); his daughter Jahel (Paulina Gaitan), cameraman AJ Poulain (Shaun Parkes of the 2006 season of DR. WHO and the short-lived show, NO ORDINARY FAMILY, 2011) and Captain Kurt Brynildson (Thomas Kretschmann, who was previously in RESIDENT EVIL: APOCALYPSE, 2004, KING KONG, 2005, GRIMM LOVE, 2006 and FLASHFORWARD, 2009), whose job it is to protect everyone.
The Magus is found, seemingly empty… But a locked room is found, and inside are bloodstains and a curious carved wood artifact, which is a sort of soul catcher. After accidentally freeing and contending with a malevolent poltergeist, Lincoln recreates the ceremony his father used to trap the entity… But who or what have they caught? Is it Emmet Cole? Lena’s father? Something wholly inhuman?
In the control room are dozens of tapes with hours and hours of footage to review. For the series the Magus has been outfitted with cameras in every room and a diligent cameraman documented everything else—things on shore, in the water, in the sky, etc. Many of the tapes are unlabeled, but Lena recalls Emmet contacting her about a nasty bug bite on his hand—they use the progress of the infection to put the latest tapes in chronological order. It’s a nifty bit of detective work, but also makes us wonder why Emmet was contacting Lena instead of his wife or his son who is in medical school.
As you have surmised, THE RIVER is very much a “found footage” sort of program, the sub-genre (usually of horror) first popularized by THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT (1999). Sometimes we see film footage as the crew reviews tapes or the cameraman is at work, other times we are privy to what the camera is filming while everyone is asleep or occupied elsewhere. If this seems familiar, one of the creators of THE RIVER is Oren Peli, director and creator of the PARANORMAL ACTIVITY franchise (2007, 2010, 2011, 2012) and Michael R. Perry, a writer of PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 2 (also a producer on MILLENNIUM, 1996-1999 and a writer on the DEAD ZONE TV series from 2002 to 2007). Some familiar gags from PARANORMAL ACTIVITY are seen in THE RIVER: shadowy presences, things amiss that are barely glimpsed (though a DVR offers some chance for review a movie does not) and a signature effect where the video counter moves forward very quickly, and we see something transpiring over long period in just seconds. (This was especially eerie in the first PARANORMAL ACTIVITY, where the sleepwalking wife stood over her husband for something like an hour as he slept.)
In the second episode, Jahel swallowed a dragonfly which was either Emmet Cole’s soul or astral body… He warned his family to turn back, but Tess took this as proof he is alive and in need of their help. We also learned that Emmet was/is searching for the “source of real magic” somewhere far upriver, and Captain Brynildson is working for some person or group back on land who does not want that source found.
(This “source” keeps reminding me of the “golden light in a cave” from LOST, that was apparently where baby Smoke Monsters come from.)
The third episode was especially eerie. The crew is going through the jungle and discovers an ancient cemetery of European settlers/missionaries from the 1700’s. A local legend has it that a child was lost from this group, and now her ghost plagues the natives in the area. To appease her, they hang dozens of dolls in a tree… Seeing lots of creepy dolls in the jungle is bad enough, but one is the teddy bear Lincoln threw into the Indian Ocean when he felt he had outgrown it… Years ago… In an ocean which is something like 10,000 miles away at the little ghost flies. Lincoln, perhaps feeling insecure, takes the bear, which ticks the ghost girl off… So said ghost (never seen) kidnaps Tess to be her new mommy. When returning the bear doesn’t work, Lincoln finds the grave of the child’s mother and reunites the two and his mother is returned unharmed. (Why a ghost who can make dolls fall out of a tree could not find her own mother’s grave is something for Peter Venkman to discuss in a panel with Ray Stantz, Egon Spengler and Winston Zeddmore.)
Each episode takes us further upriver, and presumably the laws of physics and normal, everyday life will begin to break down more and more. Each episode also presents the crew dealing with a local legend or curse. I especially liked “A Better Man”, where the cameraman from Emmet’s crew is found hanged in a tree – but still alive and delirious from malaria… Turns out this fellow, named Jonas, courted some bad juju by photographing a native funeral. He did this despite Emmet telling him such things were not to be filmed, and thus ended up stealing the soul of an elder… Branded a thief by The Powers That Be, he was then doomed to become The Hanged Man, ever suffering but never dying. The legend tied in nicely with a tarot deck Jahel carries, as well as a scary folk tale Captain Brynildson’s granny used to tell him. (It also riffs on the story of Jonah and the Whale, especially when the elements threaten to tear the ship apart if Jonas isn’t given up.) The final resolution is organic and makes sense… It also presents the possibility of a romantic triangle between Lena, Lincoln and Jonas.
Show creators Peli and Perry were initially going to make THE RIVER another low-budget horror film in the vein of PARANORMAL ACTIVITY, but felt they had enough ideas for a series. Steven Spielberg agreed and is exec producing. The initial order was for eight episodes, and we will be halfway through this first string with the airing of “Peaches” this week.
This certainly is the year for the supernatural on television, and more shows are on the way. But two water-based shows in the past did not fare very well, SURFACE (2005-2006) and INVASION (2005-2006). True, those shows were both science fiction, but their respective storylines were fantastic enough to reach that gray and sparkly area where SF and fantasy collide (as they did so alarmingly in KRULL, 1983). Whether THE RIVER continues beyond its initial order depends a great deal on the cast of characters. So far, the most likeable character for my money is Dr. Emmet Cole, who is only seen in flashbacks and found footage (or as a dragonfly). All of the cast are good actors, and there is good writing and direction, but I haven’t felt compelled to watch—I am more curious than caring. I know I keep touting LOST, but I would add THE X-FILES and FRINGE, as TV shows where the characters and their chemistry are a real joy to witness. People who are fully fleshed out that you care about. Part of the joy of watching a series is having a favorite character, and we who love genre TV often have a list of standouts from shows going back to childhood. It isn’t enough to be mildly curious—I can wait and read a summary on Wikipedia or ask a diehard friend. These have to be people that have an integrity, a life beyond the dimensions of the screen. For me, THE RIVER is intriguing but not yet must-viewing. I’ll definitely stay for the full eight, but beyond that… there’d better be some real magic in there.
UPDATE: ALCATRAZ has almost lost me. Again I am curious, but even the awesome Jorge Garcia is not enough to make me want to tune in… I will probably give them one more episode (maybe two) and then I may make my escape.
Two new shows I very much enjoy are GRIMM (Silas Weir Mitchell as a reformed “blut bad” or Big Bad Wolf is hilarious—he was also the crazy inmate who escaped with the rest in the first season of PRISON BREAK, 2005-2009), and LOST GIRL, which is sort of “Succubus in the City” without being annoying… Well, it can be a little annoying, but it’s also clever and sexy. Both shows have inventive new riffs on fairy tales and legends. Grimm goes into BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER territory but makes it its own, and LOST GIRL is sassy and erotic – definitely a show that many women I know like… It may be a show you can share with your significant other.
This week’s GUILTY PLEASURE: we all have them, songs, stories and television we are embarrassed to share, often disavowing them or hiding those incriminating CD’s, books and DVD’s when friends or family come to call… Then again, such fare is great if it’s just you and some friends who love cinematic cheese to go with beer, pizza and other forms of contraband.
I recently watched ALIEN APOCALYPSE (2005), an original SyFy movie made when the cable network was still Sci-Fi. Besides the title, the film stars Bruce Campbell, who is known to all genre geeks as Ash in THE EVIL DEAD (1981) and its sequels. Bruce Campbell fighting aliens? I’m in.
This is a movie Campbell pitched to Sci-Fi with buddy Josh Becker, who wrote and directed this… um, film. Campbell and his fellow astronauts have been away for forty years, and return to find the Earth overrun with insect overlords who use remaining humans as slaves and (sometimes) gourmet treats—they are especially fond of biting off a live human’s head.
So, it’s basically PLANET OF THE APES (1968) with bugs, yes? Well… not quite. Our first sign of trouble (and a low budget) is that we never see the probe Campbell and pals return to Earth in… We see something like a meteor that crashes behind a mountain and explodes. Later, Bruce, his captain and two women astronauts are making their way toward the city. (By the way, Campbell’s character is named Ivan Hood, but I will just call him Bruce – he’s freakin’ Bruce Campbell, after all.) Bruce would seem to be the ship’s doctor, but he is actually an osteopath. Why an osteopath is sent on a forty-year mission gives us a clue that this movie will be tongue-in-cheek.
If that weren’t a tip-off, then the aliens’ mission is. The aliens – bipedal insects who are as big as people – are rendered with pretty good CGI, and have green, goopy blood. Why are they here? They want Earth’s wood, which they eat (along with humans). (Need a moment to stop giggling? Okay…) They traveled here in vast ships and command energy weapons and high-tech tanks, but they have humans harvesting their tasty lumber with equipment from the turn of the century. Humans spend a lot of time loading planks onto horse-drawn wagons, all the while gagged. I thought at first the aliens were sensitive to our voices, but no explanation for the gags is given… They are not high-tech gags, just cloth affairs that would not seem out of place in the Middle Ages. Also on the cheap is the alien headquarters, which is a (bad) CGI hive made of highly flammable wood and (one supposes) bug saliva… maybe some human lymph, what do I know?
Bruce learns the President and the entire Congress is hiding in the hills, and manages to escape from the work camp. He gathers a small army and finds the President, who is too disillusioned to fight. Bruce shames him verbally and then heads back to the camp where his fellow astronaut (and love interest) Kelly awaits.
Though the aliens command a vastly superior technology, they seem perpetually surprised when attacked, standing patiently as primitive bow and arrows pierce their exoskeletons and they fall like mandibled bowling pins. In case you were worried, the President and his aged cronies show up like the Calvary at the last minute, but later all agree that Bruce is the real hero—this is confirmed by the THE ROAD WARRIOR-esque narrator who lets us know that even a lantern-jawed osteopath can sometimes fill Charlton Heston’s shoes.
It’s beyond low budget and silly, but it’s still a hoot. Some say Bruce is channeling Ash here, but he seems to me more like Sam Axe, his great character from the current series BURN NOTICE. There’s a weariness to his character that was missing from Ash, and Ash would never have become an osteopath. Plus, he never says “boomstick” or “screw-heads” – not even once.
ALIEN APOCALYPSE is touted as the highest-rated premier of a Sci-Fi movie – I am not sure if the Debbie Gibson/Tiffany P.O.S. MEGA PYTHON VS GATOROID (2011) beat that, but I’d like to think that the record of “The Chin that Saved Hollywood” is secure. It’s available on DVD and is your duty to rent, in case those cursed xylophagic xenomorphs show up!
That’s all from the Outpost this week… Next time we may finally attend SATAN’S SCHOOL FOR GIRLS, perhaps comparing and contrasting the hellish campuses from 1978 with those of 2000…
© Copyright 2012 by Mark Onspaugh