RIVERWORLD, Syfy Channel, 2010

Remakes are almost always bad.  The original belonged to a particular time and place and was part of a cultural mood that has long since passed.  But the Syfy channel has a pretty good track record of not just remaking but improving the first try.  Take, for example, Batlestar Galacatia.  Easily one of the worst series ever conceived, the truly horrible Seventies space opera could only be improved.  The same was true of Stargate, a bad movie that had a long afterlife as a decent television series.  Speaking of afterlife, Syfy has resurrected another not-so-old movie, Riverworld.  I have vague memories of the original, graced by the presence of Mark Twain.  The remake is an elaboration, stretched into four hours.  Contrary to many reviewers, I enjoyed the miniseries.  But then, I am easily diverted by the afterlife theme.

Briefly, the Riverworld plot remains the same—-people on earth die and are reemerge from a river on another world, a planet one hundred times larger than earth.  Reborn from previous series are Tahmoh Penikett from BSG and Peter Wingfield from Highlander.  Fortunately, everyone speaks English, explained as a universal language that has been hotwired into the brains of all the dead.   Also fortunately, the dead have been reborn as adults at the peak of their physical powers and worldly beauty.  No children or old people here.  Unfortunately, the planet is run by the Blue People who are using the humans, the “Awakened,” as pawns in a debate as to whether or not the human race is worth reviving and perfecting through atonement.  The Blue Ones who are negative towards the Awakened, practice waterboarding and want to blow up the planet, which has, apparently, been created, complete with mechanical horses for Pizarro and his conquistadors to ride, for the purpose of salvation.  The humans are thus divided between those who want to destroy Riverworld and those who want to save it.  Although we are told there are millions of resurrected humans on board, we see only those camped alongside the river’s banks.  Undoubtedly, the smart ones have retreated to the forests and are staying out of trouble.

The two big stars, Penikett and Wingfield, become adversaries, and everyone else is part of a large supporting cast.  Compared the first attempt at Riverworld, there is a lot of sex.  Even Mark Twain, portrayed as a swashbuckler by Mark Deklin, has sex.   Wingfield, playing the Nineteenth Century explorer and writer, Sir Richard Burton, explains to his new lover, Jessie, that he is skilled in the arts of the Karma Sutra.  Although Riverworld is not heaven, spending eternity with a devotée of inventive sex isn’t exactly hell, either.  Jessie, played by Laura Vandervoort, is a Barbie-doll of a bimbo, devoid of personality.  It is unclear why Matt would be so obsessed with seeking her out, especially when a much superior woman is close by, Tomoe, Jeananne Gossen, playing a Samurai warrior.  The good guys join forces with Samuel Clemens on his riverboat that took “years” to build.  I have no idea what a “year” means in Riverworld, but apparently there are many of them: you die and are reborn.  The riverboat is headed to the Source, a place where Clemens believes all questions will be answered.  Alas, the Source turns out to be the Dark Tower.  And there are no answers waiting.

Afterlife scenarios are always interesting and Christian-based cultures are fascinated with the possibilities.  We rarely see Heaven, apparently a very dull place, in our films.  RIverworld is either a kind of hell or a purgatory, much more interesting and dramatic.  Aside from some kind of “reactor” in the riverboat, there is no modern technology in Riverworld, no machine guns, no electricity, no computer geeks, and only one engineer. There is no art here and only one scene where left-over hippies are playing bongo drums.  This is an afterlife without music, joy or love, a world given over to violent conflict.  If there are teachers or philosophers in this place, they must be prudently cowering in caves.  If one contrasts this version of an alternative to life here on earth with that put forward by Star Trek, it is clear that the optimism of the Sixties has long since been overtaken by a dark vision of ultimate despair, characteristic of the New Millennium.  There is a fleeting reference to 9/11 when one of the very minor characters spots an old friend who died in the North Tower.

September 11th haunts this movie as it haunts so many others made in the past decade.  We learn that earth has been blown up.  So there is no chance of going “home.”  The Awakened humans are all that is left and they are stranded on an alien world.  The unwinding of the plot is perhaps less interesting than how Riverworld ends: the planet was almost destroyed but slowly the humans regenerated and over a series of years and return to the beginning, floating to the surface of dark waters and swimming to shore.  The conflict must be reenacted; the journey begun again.  Einstein said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.  Riverworld is a world very much like our own: we fight the same battles and debate the same issues, decade after decade.  This television event was too long by about an hour, but it says something about who we are now.  In America, we are divided between two forces: those who want to go back in time and are angry because something has changed “their America” and because, for some reason, they were left behind.  On the other side, there are those who are struggling to find hope, if not in a person, at least within themselves. At the end, Riverworld restarts and Mark Twain insists on the possibility of hope.  There might be more to come of this bleak vision.  We shall see if a series emerges out of the new Riverworld.

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

The Arts Blogger

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