Since no new ABC supernatural or sci-fi drama can stand on its own merits, The River has been touted as the latest attempt to replicate the sort of success and intrigue that the network had with Lost—as you may remember, 2009’s Flash Forward and V were both met with the same comparison upon their debuts. The Steven Spielberg-produced series is an adventure-paranormal-horror-thriller hybrid and because one of its creators is Paranormal Activity writer-director Oren Peli, it’s no surprise that the story, set in the spooky, uncharted regions of the Amazon, is presented to us as found footage. “Found footage,” you exclaim, possibly scrunching your face up in disgust. “Does this Peli character realize that there are other ways to frame a story?” Apparently he doesn’t. But that’s okay, because the concept works here, at least in the short term.
The River’s two-part opener begins with newscasters reporting the disappearance of Emmet Cole (Bruce Greenwood), explorer and beloved host of The Undiscovered Country – a nature show running for 22 years. Six months after vanishing somewhere on the Amazon River, Emmet is declared legally dead, but his wife Tess (Leslie Hope) doesn’t want to hear that mess. The belief that her husband is still alive seems to be validated when the emergency frequency from his ship, The Magus, is detected. She spearheads a recovery mission with the help of Clark Quietly (Paul Blackthorne), Emmet’s former producer. Clark has secured funding for the trip, the provisos being that he is allowed to film everything and that Tess and Emmet’s estranged son Lincoln (Joe Anderson) accompany them – Lincoln reluctantly agrees. Also along for the ride are loyal Magus mechanic Emilio (Daniel Zacapa); Emilio’s ghost whispering teen daughter Jahel (Paulina Gaitan); gun enthusiast Capt. Kurt Brynildson (Thomas Kretschmann), who serves as security; cameraman A.J. (Shaun Parkes); and Lena Landry (Eloise Mumford), the daughter of The Undiscovered Country’s cameraman, Russ, who is also missing.
These days, an inordinate number horror movies take the form of salvaged video recordings – the narratives reportedly pieced together after some otherworldly event that caused the death or disappearance of the main players. It’s a gimmick and sometimes its successful (Paranormal Activity) and sometimes it isn’t (Apollo 18). For me, the genre has always been a bit problematic. Even if I find myself enjoying the movie, the question that usually springs to mind is, why is this being recorded? If the phenomenon being filmed is so terrifyingly anomalous, how is it that these amateur videographers have the emotional wherewithal to continually point a camera at it?
The River brings the genre to TV and for once the found footage conceit makes a little bit of sense to me. Clark (already the frontrunner for the villain of this piece) at least has some financial motivation for filming all of the perilous situations that the group faces on their journey. In the premiere, they discover that Emmet, who ended every episode of The Undiscovered Country by saying, “There’s magic out there,” had been looking for and subsequently found actual magic along the Amazon River when he went missing. When Tess and her crew come across the abandoned Magus, they wind up releasing some evil, bloodthirsty shadow spirit that wounds Lena and kills a cameraman. Manipulative Clark is undeterred by this and convinces Tess to continue with the mission even though he obviously realizes that she’s more likely to be decapitated by some supernatural being than rescue her husband.
The found footage framework imposes a kind of realism on circumstances that aren’t grounded in reality and within the horror genre it seems to be used to scare audiences by getting them to think, if only momentarily or just superficially, that all of the crazy, scary things that they’re watching could actually happen. The River is genuinely creepy and would probably be just as creepy if it were structured in a more conventional way. The handheld camera does, however, add a layer of urgency to already tense situations while the stationary, surveillance cameras have a sinister quality, and because we can assume that Clark is reviewing each day’s footage, it gives his character power over the others (will he use information gleaned from the recordings to influence the others? Will he hide potential dangers from them?).
But how long can this realistically last? How long can they string out this rescue mission? And, on a technical level, there has to come a point when they aren’t able to film any new footage, right? And that point can’t be six years down the road, can it? The River has a cinematic quality to it and seeing as the premise isn’t totally solid, would probably work better as a mini-series. Most of us are able to suspend disbelief when it comes to ghosts, monsters, and the like but when a show is presented as a documentary, there is an expectation that there will be a conclusion. I mean, who hasn’t wondered why that camera crew is still filming all of the increasingly uninteresting shenanigans over at Dunder Mifflin?