The Louisville Cardinal

Review: Lukewarm waters in ABC’s ‘The River’

By Sam Dent–

Is it “Paranormal Activity” combined with “Lost?” Or is it a hybrid of “The X-Files” and “The Blair Witch Project” set in the Amazon? Maybe it’s all of those recognizable names combined into an adventure-horror series made for television. Whatever the case, how you feel about watching this offering of supernatural horror will largely depend on how you view the works listed above. Even if some of them push your interest buttons, be advised; the question is if you will tolerate a river smelling of cheese instead of fright. If terror and suspense is what ‘The River” wants to be, it’ll take a dam or human intervention to help steer it towards the desired course.

By now, even casual filmgoers might be familiar with the “found footage” framing device. The first-person “you are there” approach has roots in the 1980s but really took off during the last decade. A whole system of works has been released, containing not only the aforementioned “Blair Witch” and “Paranormal Activity,” but also “Cloverfield” and even “Chronicle,” the latest offering that was released early this month. Blending concepts of documentary and immediate presentation, it’s been used in presenting horror, adventure and science fiction in a new light. Now it has made its way to television through the mind of Oren Peli, none other than the director and creator of the “Paranormal Activity” franchise.

With the background in mind, what ultimately matters is the show itself. The hook is pretty straightforward: once the (fictional) world-famous explorer Emmet Cole goes missing in the Amazon and the search parties finally presume him dead, his distress beacon is heard six months later. His wife and son organize a search team made up of themselves and remnants of the production crew who once worked with Cole to make his nature programs. When they decide to film their search and turn it into a documentary, what we witness are the results of what happens as they go far down the Amazonian River into uncharted territory.

Needless to say, inexplicable things soon happen. Ghosts and paranormal entities begin to haunt the boat and crew with shaky camera footage recording every moment. The video feed switches between cameras being held or ones rigged on the exploration boat; with so many viewpoints, it almost defeats the novelty of the framing device. While the cast does fine overall—special mention going to Bruce Greenwood as Emmet Cole in archive footage and Leslie Hope as Tess Cole, his bold, hopeful wife—the characters don’t move much beyond one-note descriptions – at least not yet.

There’s no telling what will be done in the eight episodes ordered to complete the season, but some fleshing will be needed for the audience to care. In this way, the writing remains barely adequate in the face of frequent absurdity and is best when used in minimalist fashion during the bizarre scenarios. While some of the encounters do create suspense, many are so over-the-top they inspire unintentional laughs and even eye rolling. Oops.

It can’t be too spine-shattering given it’s on ABC and that might be the breaking point for horror buffs. The result is a half-baked exercise in capitalizing on a popular movement without paying attention to what makes the system work. Frequent commercial breaks decompress the tension and the ridiculous amount of camera angles used has one wonder why the producers bothered with the documentary-approach to begin with. Fans of the current “found footage” wave might want to give it a shot, but those who haven’t been converted won’t find anything to change their minds. From the opening two episodes so far, this river runs pretty shallow and not all that wild.

“The River” will air its remaining six episodes on Tuesdays at 9 p.m. EST on ABC.

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Photos courtesy Dreamworks Television