“The River”: Strong Concept, Poor Execution

Written by Mitchell B February 19, 2012

“The River”, a new ABC supernatural thriller/drama, focuses on Lincoln Cole (Joe Anderson), the son of a wildly popular television host/explorer, Dr. Emmet Cole (Bruce Greenwood).  Lincoln grew up on his father’s television series “Undiscovered Country”, where the entire Cole family would travel the globe, making incredible discoveries and always looking for the “magic out there.” “The River” kicks off with the announcement that Dr. Emmet Cole has disappeared in the Amazon. After six months of searching, no sign of Dr. Cole has been found and he is declared dead, by the general public and by his family. However, on the night of his funeral, Dr. Cole’s emergency beacon goes off, leading Lincoln’s mother Tess (Leslie Hope) to organize a search party to voyage to the Amazon and locate Dr. Cole. And that’s where the adventure begins.

“The River” was created by “Paranormal Activity” creator Oren Peli, and like “Paranormal Activity”, “The River” uses the documentary/found-footage format to tell its story. In order to fund the rescue mission, Tess and Lincoln have agreed to let a camera crew film the entire thing. The rescue team is rounded out by Dr. Cole’s former producing partner Clark (Paul Blackthorne), lead cameraman A.J. (Shaun Parkes), mechanic Emilio and his daughter Jahel, captain and bodyguard Kurt, and obvious love-interest/daughter of missing cameraman Lena (Eloise Mumford). After three episodes, it appears that “The River” will use a ‘monster-of-the-week’ format, where each week the crew faces off with a different mysterious entity, all the while searching for the missing doctor. This is one of my issues with the show.

This is simply a matter of personal preference, but I cannot watch procedurals. I prefer shows with season-long and series-long story arcs. One of the many reasons why is because these shows care more about developing their characters and stories than they do about getting you hooked by the first episode. “The River” has been compared to “Lost”, as they both deal with people trapped in a mysterious/supernatural world, looking for something specific. What “Lost” did that “The River” has to do thus far, was develop the characters first, so that when unusual things start happening to them, you are actually invested in the outcome. “The River” jumps right into the supernatural, without much character development or build-up, which turns them into one-note horror-film clichés. The reveal of the supernatural so early on also removes any actual fear of it; once you’ve shown the black blur attacking the crew, the shaky-cam scanning the trees isn’t so scary because you know exactly what is there: people are scared of the dark because they don’t know what’s in it. The fear of the unknown was put to better use in the second and third episodes, but still falls fairly flat.

The lack of scares also stem from the poor use of the found-footage format. It’s a tricky thing to film a movie or television series in this format, mostly because you’re relying on strictly shots and angles that the person holding the camera can be shooting. “Paranormal Activity” is an excellent example of how this format can be effective. The camera work is simple, the acting is mostly improvised, and the special effects are used sparingly. Thus, you believe that the events unfolding are or could be real (suspending your disbelief in ghosts, obviously). “The River”, on the other hand, uses a plethora of cameras, which often make us wonder “who could possibly be shooting this?” The acting is also another issue. It’s not terrible by any means, but it feels way too scripted for this type of format. Nobody in the real world speaks in dialogue. People stutter, or pause, or use filler words like “umm” or even begin sentences in the middle of someone else’s. With the acting in “The River” you can tell that everybody is acting and working off a script, and it simply takes away the realism that found-footage tries to achieve.

Overall “The River” has a strong enough concept to keep me watching until the 8-episode first season is over. The idea of a group of people travelling the Amazon and coming across supernatural activity is interesting, and I think that found-footage, when done properly, provides more thrills than any slasher film or torture-porn “Saw” rehash. “The River” falls short in a few too many categories to recommend it, but if there’s nothing else on it might provide a scare or two for the right viewer.

My Rating: 5.5/10

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