Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Winter pilots: The River

Tuesdays at 9 -- ABC

The "found footage" movies have, in the dozen years since The Blair Witch Project, become a staple of the horror film industry.  There are a handful of these types of films release every year, whether the latest Paranormal Activity installment or some Exorcist rip-off, the style is basically considered a horror trope.  The idea of an ongoing horror-mystery set on the Amazon river told through found footage sounds like a pretty good one.  The unfamiliar terrain coupled with countless potential threats should be easy to translate into chills and scares.  Toss in a supernatural component and a mysterious disappearance, and The River looked to be the new Lost.  Yet, show creators Michael R. Perry and Orin Peli seem to have imbued in the show little of the sensibility of their Paranormal Activity work, in fact any attempt at building suspense or terror winds up being laughable.

I admit to being charmed by the show's concept.  Bruce Greenwood plays Emmet Cole, a quasi-Jaques Cousteau TV-explorer of sorts, who has been a fixture of television sets for over 30 years.  On a recent expedition in the Amazon, his boat disappeared, and through every effort was made, he, his ship, and his crew were nowhere to be found.  But shortly after they were declared dead, his wife and producer receive word of his distress signal, which leads them on a new search, his estranged son and camera crew in tow.  On the Amazon they find an uncharted arm of the river, not on any satellite map, a place the locals are wary and fearful of, as they claim it's soused in negative energy and dark spirits.

Like Alcatraz a few weeks ago, this 2-hour pilot is actually the first two episodes presented back-to-back.  By the end of the first episode, the plucky adventure team have found the missing boat and fought off a malicious, restless spirit, sacrificing a cameraman in the process.

The show handles the relationships between the team in an overt and clunky manner, with unnatural and expository dialogue that sounds like community theatre. The spiritual and supernatural elements are handled with equal tact, which is to say that they manifest themselves in obvious ways depriving the veiwer of any suspense and are resolved in ludicrous displays of overacting.  The characters seem not only keen to believe, but eager to believe in the mystical forces they're up against.  There's little attempt made to mask the paranormal things that are occurring and it would appear that each episode has a different event or two for the cast to deal with (again with remarkable ease and familiarity).  The result it a tremendous lack of suspense, creepiness or horror, which if the show isn't able to properly manufacture, then why bother.

The "found footage" angle is underplayed, as there is a camera crew documenting the search for Emmet Cole which is more in "documentary style", while the actual found footage is the occasional excerpt from past episodes of Emmet Cole's exploration show, or of the footage from immediately prior to his disappearance found on the boat.  The found footage and background story footage are probably the show's most interesting component, however they are underused, particularly in setting up larger character or plot point, only used in an immediate relevancy context.  The "documentary style", meanwhile, overreaches, using far too many camera angles to be believable, and, at times, the camera angles lie, in the sense that there's no way there's a camera there, at that time, capturing the events as it happens.  Unlike, say, Person of Interest, or Four Lions, both of which switch between different camera styles and filming techniques to tell their story, The River does so with little sense of art or logic.  Are we really supposed to believe that every cupboard on the ship has a camera in it?  As well, the shakycam element is annoying and distracting.

The bottom line is The River is full of failed potential, ridiculously inept in its execution, and there's little to actually enjoy in watching it.  Television is ready for a good ongoing found footage-style scripted horror, this just isn't going to be it.