Originally, Syfy planned Riverworld as a two-part miniseries airing over two days. When they scheduled it, however, they shoved it into a four-hour block on Sunday night. Relatively few people will stick around for the entire four hours and the ratings will be low. There was not much else Syfy could do. Riverworld is an aimless miniseries wandering from situation to situation in a mystical world, unsure of direction, tone, or pacing.
Based very loosely on Philip Jose Farmer's series of novels, the miniseries begins with Matt Ellman (Tahmoh Penikett) and his fiance, Jessie, getting blown up by a suicide bomber. Hundreds of bodies are in rectangular tanks, but Ellman is set free. He ends up on the banks of a river, entering Riverworld, a land where time has no relevance. There is an eclectic group of historical figures that takes a certain stretch of the imagination to accept. He meets a samurai woman, Francisco Pizzaro, Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain), and Richard Burton (the explorer, not the actor). Blue aliens, who we never truly learn about, show up periodically to guide Ellman or warn him. In order to find Jessie, he must kill Burton.
The message of the miniseries isn't bad and is something to think about--not something typical of the Syfy Original Movies. That can be attributed to Philip José Farmer and the clumsy writing doesn't help to expound on the complex themes of rebirth and redemption. The ending opens doors to many other possibilities and could have been expanded much more.
Core to Riverworld is the action and the visual effects, heavy but not spectacular. We are inundated with killing and cool shots of alien technology to the point where there is no relevance in the end. The second half slows to a crawl after the initial mystery is resolved, becoming a straight journey that's entirely boring. The most intriguing elements of the miniseries, the existence of the world and the aliens, are pushed to the side for a laborious ride on an airship.
The dialogue is as stilted as that of a Syfy Original Movie and the characters other than Mark Twain don't come out. I've never thought of Tahmoh Penikett as a particularly good actor, and it definitely shows at many points. His delivery is very awkward, especially when he was those offhand John Crichton-like humorous lines.
I wouldn't recommend this disaster to anyone, but if, as I stated in my preview of the week, you have absolutely nothing else to watch on Sunday night, meaning you don't want to watch Breaking Bad, Treme, The Pacific, Brothers and Sister, Desperate Housewives, Cold Case, Army Wives, The Tudors, Til Death, Sonny with a Chance, or an ant walking around, there's Riverworld on Syfy, possibly the worst thing I've seen this year.