An argument can be made that the 2003 television movie “Riverworld” could have been a decent (and perhaps even good) science fiction film if approached in the correct manner in the first place. Alas, a limited budget, an unimaginative script, and the Sci Fi Channel label has all but doomed Kari Skogland’s “Riverworld” to the bin of films that should never have been made in the first place, even as a pilot for a would-be TV series that never came to fruition. The film actually starts off quite well, with American astronaut Jeff Hale (Brad Johnson) finding himself killed while orbiting the Earth in a shuttle, only to be resurrected along with all the human beings who ever lived, on an alien planet created for reasons unknown by a mysterious species.
Hale isn’t the only one on Riverworld; he’s joined by the genteel Alice (Emily Lloyd), the Holocaust victim Lev (Jeremy Birchall), and enslaved African Mali (Karen Holness). Later, after finding themselves rounded up and captured by a local warlord (another reincarnated soul who has carved himself out a fiefdom in Riverworld, where apparently the makers of the planet have left everyone to their own devices), Hale and company meets Monat (Brian Moore), a humanoid extraterrestrial who had the misfortune to die while on Earth. Monat informs Hale that the Earth has since been destroyed, so even if they could somehow manage to escape Riverworld, where would they go “back” to?
Mind you, not that such monumental questions as, “If this isn’t Heaven or Hell, and Earth is no longer an option, what is to become of us?” has anything to do with “Riverworld”. Once Hale is captured, the entire movie becomes a camp version of an average “Xena” episode. Instead of angry Gods, we have mysterious aliens that show up for about 30 seconds of total screentime, while the human villain is Nero, the former Roman emperor who has plans to turn Riverworld into another empire. It’s up to Hale and a local resistance leader named Sam (Cameron Daddo) to stop the mad despot, although the Southerner Sam is more concerned with finishing up his riverboat.
“Riverworld” is based on a series of fantasy/sci-fi novels by Philip Jose Farmer, whose version of Riverworld is more ambitious and grander in scope than the film version. Like most of the Sci Fi Channel’s “original” movies, the script by Stuart Hazeldine makes as much logical sense as one of their killer snake, or rat, or mutated ant movies. And this is not even taking into account the film’s premise of an alien world where humanity’s souls are reincarnated — that much, I’ll readily give the show. That’s how logic-challenged most of the Sci Fi Channel’s original movies are.
Mind you, I’m not one to stand against nonsensical, but entertaining films. The problem with “Riverworld” is that it’s just not very good. Questions and nitpicks abound, such as: how did these bewildered souls, some from periods of human history where “high-tech” means a stone wheel barrel, quickly grasp the idea of advanced alien technology? Or the fact that the girl who was enslaved by Portuguese traders hundreds of years ago is the first one to figure out how to work the magical canisters. Or that for a Roman emperor, Nero acts suspiciously like your average cop movie punk, including that clich’d “using the girl as a shield and forcing the hero to drop his sword” gag. How B-action movie of him.
Even by the mediocre standards of what it means to be a Sci Fi Original Movie, “Riverworld” comes up short. The books by Farmer might have been great fun, but the movie version is poorly condensed, and the focus, which should have been on the aliens, instead involves lousy gladiator matches and painful fight choreography and plot holes. And when I say “plot holes”, I’m not even talking about the film’s fantastical premise — I’m talking about characters vanishing and appearing at will, lame plot revelations, and just general poor episodic TV-level writing.
True to its pedigree as a pilot for a proposed series that never found its way to the small screen, “Riverworld” has the look and feel of a movie made specifically for TV. In that respect, you could probably forgive it for being so pedestrian. Almost. No doubt “Riverworld” the TV show would have progressed in the vein of the recent “Lost World” series, with the crew of Sam’s riverboat encountering the rest of Earth’s reincarnated souls as they travel down Riverworld’s seemingly endless river. “The Lost World” was never much of a TV show, and judging by this 90-minute pilot, a “Riverworld” series probably wouldn’t have been any better.
Kari Skogland (director) / Philip Jose Farmer (novels), Stuart Hazeldine (screenplay)
CAST: Brad Johnson …. Jeff Hale
Karen Holness …. Mali
Emily Lloyd …. Alice
Jeremy Birchall …. Lev Ruach
Kevin Smith …. Valdemar
Nikita Kearsley …. Gwenafra