The River S01E01 ‘Magnus’ episode review

Oren Peli’s shortlived The River finally comes to Syfy in the UK on 9 October 2012

Nine months on from its US debut, and now viewers in the UK finally get to see how a series with such a promising premise and fan-friendly credits attached managed to haemorrhage half its viewers over eight episodes. Nothing quite sums up the fall in its stock since the build-up to that first episode airing that it’s gone from showing on ABC, one of the three largest US networks, to the UK embassy of the small yet dedicated Syfy.

Following an expedition up the Amazon in search of avuncular naturalist (or naturist, we’re never quite sure of the difference) Dr Emmet Cole (Bruce Greenwood, Star Trek‘s Captain Pike) through found-footage, where weird happenings in the wilderness (polar bears, hatches etc) offering up the same long term WTF? potential as Lost. From the brain tank of executive producer Steven Spielberg, Paranormal Activity director and shakycam horror impresario Oren Peli and long-term TV writer Michael R Perry, whose credits include Eerie, IndianaMillennium and The Dead Zone, The River was certainly ticking all the boxes necessary to get a bit of a buzz going.

The problem is that peopling this expedition to find Nigel Thornberry six months on is the largest gathering of unlikeable dicks who make poor decisions since the crew of the Prometheus set down in Jurassic Park. Led by the weasel-faced Lincoln Cole (The Twilight Saga – Breaking Dawn Part 2‘s Joe Anderson), the son with an axe to grind, and his waspish mother Tess (24‘s Leslie Hope) are a bunch of hysterical stereotypes, the highlights of which are a superstitious girl who barks wide-eyed foreboding in Spanish to everyone’s supreme indifference (and apparent lack of Spanish) like a Romanian peasant in a Hammer Horror movie and a German bodyguard who throws someone overboard for touching his children guns.

And then there’s the writing, the quality of which shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise given as Oren Peli holds the story credit, and this is definitely one he can double bag with his other recent addition to the ‘Stereotypes Abroad’ subgenre, Chernobyl Diaries. Spanish horror director Jaume Collet-Serra (Orphan, House Of Wax) takes on this opening two parter – perhaps in order to suitably set the tone to Peli’s horror sensibilities – but anything he does is undermined by documentary-style cutaways to talking head interviews that are perhaps supposed to be rife with irony, hubris or melancholy, but instead hamstring all attempts at any real tension or drama

There’s plenty of ropey CGI, too, as the our team – who increasingly resemble the crew of Anaconda, only less appealing for lack of Ice Cube‘s raw acting prowess – discover some giant insects who bob around like the Spice Girls in Viva Forever, and their first beastie, a sort of angry coconut-headed thing from Brazilian mythology.

Not that the quality of the CGI really matters, though – there are people out there who hold the Russell T Davis era of Doctor Who in high regard, after all – but it’s certainly the poorly rendered cherry on top of a greasy great narrative pie of lazy characterisation and forehead-mashingly idiotic dialogue.

“There’s someone out there,” says Sweaty Weaselface, on a half submerged boat in a mysterious region far up the Amazon River. “I don’t know if it’s an animal or a guy on drugs.”