A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 132 – Riverworld (2010)

Riverworld (2010) – July 10th, 2010

We did not intend to buy this today. We didn’t intend to buy any movies today. But there is was when we went looking for more shelving for our ever-expanding collection. And it’s got Tahmoh Penikett! And Alan Cumming! And most importantly (to me), Peter Wingfield! Now, I’ll apologize in advance, but I’ve got a thing. Peter Wingfield is one of my favorite actors and I might get a little distracted.

But he’s not on screen for a little bit. First we get an entirely different main character than the 2003 version of this story. Tahmoh Penikett is Matt Ellman, a reporter doing a story on some rebels in southeast Asia. He and his girlfriend are caught in an explosion when a suicide bomber blows up the club they were in. That’s a far cry from an astronaut dying in his shuttle. The whole thing with the Riverworld residents and how they’re stored and awakened and all is very different. I still haven’t read the books, so I found this rather interesting. There’s a lot that’s different. Matt’s been singled out from the others, he meets up with people he knows from just before the explosion, the grailstones are really different and Matt can’t get anything from them (what with the aforementioned singling out). There’s still a confrontation over the food, but it’s not remotely the same. And then the most profound difference I’ve noticed at the outset is that there are a bunch of blue-faced folks in robes who’re obviously manipulating things on Riverworld. In the other version these folks only show up at the end. It affects the whole plot.

Sure, there are other changes from what I mentioned. The core characters are different, aside from Matt Ellman. There’s Tomoe Gozen, a female samurai from medieval Japan. There’s Matt’s cameraman, Simon, and Matt’s girlfriend Jessie’s tour group from before the explosion (two of them bite it early on and aren’t seen again but two others stick around – not long enough but I’ll get to them). And there’s Richard Burton, played by Peter Wingfield, as the immediately identified bad guy. He does play a good bad guy. Sure, there are other bad guys. Here we have Pizarro instead of Nero, but Burton’s got one of the blue dudes giving him advice. There’s something deeper going on beyond the obvious leader of the humans. That sort of deeper game wasn’t in the other movie, but I kind of like it. To be honest, I like it both ways.

One thing I don’t like is the constant flashbacks Matt keeps having to his previous life. I get that it’s trying to show backstory for Matt and give him a spine and all, but it feels disruptive to the flow of the story in Riverworld. All the flashbacks are to an event in Chechnya, where he and Simon were shown a secret mass grave and then got caught in an attack. For the purposes of character building? It’s sort of interesting. But it could have been cut entirely and I wouldn’t have missed it because the real story going on is the game the blue dudes are playing with the humans.

One of the things I liked about this movie – and there are several – is that it shows us so much of what’s going on without actually explaining it all. We know that Riverworld is a created place and that there are non-human entities watching everything. We know that there’s a dispute going on between them, with two factions using humans to battle over something. But the specifics take a while to play out. They do a lot of showing and not a lot of telling. Unfortunately, that does have the effect of leaving Matt looking like a bit of a doof much of the time, as he’s questioned by one faction and honestly tells them he really has no idea what’s going on.

But I like that things are deeper. I like that it’s not just tossing historical figures together and making us watch them duke it out without anything else driving it. In this version the riverboat exists already when we meet Sam Clemens, and he’s already determined to find the source of the river. He’s been singled out by the blue dudes too, and so we get a bit of a picture that there’s been a game going on for a long time. Matt might well just be an innocent dupe, used as a pawn because his determination to find Jessie will lead the blue dudes (whom Matt actually refers to as Blue Man Group, so I’m glad he made that joke before I had to) to whatever conclusion they’re looking for. But there’s a richer world here, I think, than in the 2003 version.

Of course, the movie is longer. It was originally a 4 hour miniseries on SyFy (I hate writing it like that – can I rebel and not use that?) and therefore has a very distinct Part One and Part Two. Pizarro is all in the first half, where the second half makes the true stakes clearer. It makes for a bit of a messy plot, if I’m being honest, but I find I don’t mind. Maybe it’s because I got to see a lot of Peter Wingfield as Burton, being devious and smooth and obviously enjoying the heck out of the role. Maybe it’s because I really started enjoying listening to Sam. Maybe it’s because I got into the plot a little more when it started to become cohesive towards the end. Maybe it’s because I truly liked seeing more of the world’s underpinnings, even if some things aren’t explained.

Some examples of things left unexplained: The dirigible. That’s great, that Ludwig Durr managed to build a dirigible and fly it around. But this is sort of like Ator’s hangglider in Cave Dwellers. Where the hell did the materials come from? I could buy the riverboat, but yeah. Not only is there a dirigible, but it has wine glasses and bottles of champagne. That alludes to some much more developed settlements than we’re ever shown. So that’s frustrating. It tosses me out of the movie almost as badly as the flashbacks. Thankfully, there’s plenty to pull me back in.

In addition to the things I mentioned before, there are some good characters in the movie. I love that the female warrior in the movie, Tomoe Gozen, is a real figure from Japanese history. For one, it gives the movie another historical figure, which is part of the whole conceit. Two, it gives us a nice strong female, and we needed one. I really like how diverse the cast is in many ways, with men and women and several races and cultures represented. There’s even a gay couple, whom I mentioned before. And to be honest, they’re what make the ending unsatisfying for me, because they don’t get much closure. All through the movie they keep getting split up. Antonio gets dragged along with the enemy and Hal dies and gets resurrected. It’s a running theme. I’d have liked so see them get some time without death or baddies. Alas.

There’s a lot of twists and backstabbing and trying to decide who’s telling the truth and whose intentions are what underneath. I like that. I’m up for a good twisty plot with grey areas. The problem is that given the nature of the world, it all ends with a new beginning. Stephen King can get away with that (in my opinion, though I know others disagree) but this movie? Not so sure. Again, it seems like someone really desperately wants to make this into a full series, but isn’t quite sure how to draw people into it enough to do that. It’s a pity, because this really was a lot of fun in a lot of ways, but I can understand how people might not have gotten wrapped up in it enough to keep coming back. I would, but that’s me. And I do have a thing for Peter Wingfield.

July 10, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Riverworld (2010)

July 10, 2010

Riverworld (2010)

Tonight we embark on our second Riverworld adaptation. We picked this up on a whim this morning while out shopping and neither of us has seen it before. I’m interested to see a different perspective on the same world.

Right at the start I can see that it’s going to be a very different beast from the first made for TV adaptation. It’s not concerned with being too faithful to the books I guess. Our hero today is Matt, played by Tamoh Penickett from BSG, a war zone television reporter who travels to all kinds of dangerous remote locations to get his news stories. Ironically he dies in a nightclub explosion while proposing to his girlfriend and not while on assignment.

As with Richard Burton in the first Riverworld book (To Your Scattered Bodies Go) and Jeff Hale in the 2003 TV adaptation Matt has a brief glimpse of all the reconstructed bodies of humanity before he finds himself spat out upon the banks of the endless river that is where every human that ever lived is reborn. In this adaptation the people emerge fully clothed in the dress of their time. There are no “grails” but there are bracelets that everybody (except Matt) wears that they can use on the grailstones to get food and such. And furthermore most of the people that Matt died with are also reborn at the same time and in the same place. (A marked departure from the source work, where due to the vast number of people who have lived throughout history the odds of anybody ever meeting someone they knew in their mortal life are exceedingly low.)

Unlike the 2003 adaptation this one does address things like the “suicide express” which allows people to travel Riverworld by killing themselves to be reborn somewhere else. And there is grail slavery, where the supplies taken from the grailstones are taken by those with the greatest fighting force.

I’ve got to stop watching this as an adaptation. It seems that Richard Francis Burton is the bad guy in this film. I find that very disorienting. It hurts my brain to try to see all of these things twisted to fit some new configuration. I need to try and watch this on its own merits. So here are a few fragmented thoughts as I watch the movie:

Sam Clemens is very well written here. Very eloquent and given to the sorts of flowery language you would expect from Mark Twain. Mark Deklin’s performance however is grating to me. He comes across as smug, self righteous and irritating. It’s hard to root for the good guys when their leader and his annoying cackle makes me wince whenever he’s on screen.

Francis Burton, however, is played with his usual flare by Peter Wingfield. Sure he’s not a very nice character, and I don’t exactly root for him, but it’s a delight whenever he’s around. Bad guys are always the more interesting ones, anyhow.

The motivations of some of the characters in this movie make little sense to me. Matt is obsessed with his girlfriend Jessie to whom he proposed right before he died. I suppose I can understand this, her being the love of his life and all, but the movie doesn’t really show us anything of the two of them together before they die. We’re just kind of asked to accept their word for it that there was anything between them at all. The same situation exists for Tomoe – the badass samurai woman who, for no discernible reason attaches herself to Matt’s cause. She barely even gets a single scene with him, but is soon willing to kill herself to find Matt. It’s very strange.

Maybe it’s a result of editing. This movie is, after all, a miniseries compressed into movie form. Maybe there are scenes lost in the shuffle that lend credence to the motivations.

It isn’t until about halfway through the movie that we start to get a feel for the warring factions amongst the watchers of Riverworld and begin to understand what’s supposed to be going on. There’s a group of blue people (led by Alan Cumming) who want to destroy the Riverworld and end the constant rebirth of humanity using Sam’s riverboat and Burton’s general dissatisfaction with life. And there are some other blue people who want to save the world. And somehow Jessie is mixed up in this. At the start of the movie you wonder why Matt of all people would be “chosen” by the watchers, but I begin to suspect it’s because his previous relationship with Jessie makes him a good wedge to use with Burton.

I actually do enjoy this movie. It doesn’t grab me emotionally and it’s fairly linear, but it explores a lot of the issues of Riverworld and does get to the source and have a final confrontation. But much is left unresolved. It doesn’t ever get a chance to explore the true purpose of Riverworld and the notion of “moving on,” and most frustratingly for me a pair of ancillary characters that I quite liked never got the happy ending I was hoping for. As with the 2003 Riverworld adaptation it ends with our heroes again on the great river boat and ready for a sequel. Maybe in seven years somebody will try again.

July 10, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment