Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Review: The River "Magus / Marbeley"

Non Spoiler Review:
The River is another highly anticipated series produced by Steven Spielberg (who gets a black eye for the disappointing Terra Nova) and the makers of Paranormal Activity. This is probably the first in the found footage genre for television and involves a family's search for a famous explorer gone missing in the Amazon.

The classic two-hour premiere (which can sometimes be a chore to sit through—Terra Nova, Alcatraz...) hit the ground running and moved at a frenetic pace. This one really rocked, and I have to say it's probably the best network series premiere I've seen in years since Lost .

The characters are all pretty interesting. There are no glaringly annoying or poorly cast members of the expedition, and all are fairly believable in the context of the extraordinary circumstances they're immediately thrust in. Enough happens in the first hour to successfully accelerate the plot into the next half. 

Does it scare? I'm pretty accustomed to horror movies these days, so it's not a scary show. However, there are creepy, chilling and tense scenes, and someone with a taste for the bizarre is definitely behind the wheel. Given the The River appears to only have another six episodes, I don't see a problem maintaining this kind of pacing and am anxious to see how it plays out.

My only criticism is the conceit of the found footage and the omnipresent cameras (including a hovering drone). We accept that even in the most dangerous moment, someone has their wits about them to pick up the camera and shoot everything. There are also a few flashbacks that obviously cannot be filmed. But I'm willing to accept all that. I highly recommend the series for anyone looking for action, adventure, mystery and some creepy Paranormal Activity chills.

Spoilers Now!
Nature series The Undiscovered Country with Emmet Cole premiered in 1988 and aired 22 years. He and his wife Tess and son Lincoln became famous televising their lives of exploration. Emmet was reported missing and the search for him ended after six months. The footage accounts the story of those who kept searching...

Tess doesn't believe her husband is dead and plans to continue the search with the help of a network-funded expedition. Emmet's beacon has been discovered in the Amazon, but her son Lincoln doesn't believe they'll find him alive and wants to get on with his life away from the cameras. The network will only pay if both of them go, with plans to film it as part of a new series. Lincoln is ultimately coerced into agreeing, but makes no secret of the fact he and his father hated each other.

Later, in Brazil, they assemble their team to find Emmet's ship (The Magus)—Clark Quietly is series producer (of both the new and old shows). AJ and Sammy are lead and second cameraman. Emilio was the Magus' mechanic (that Emmet made a point of not including on the last expedition), and his daughter Jahel, who can't speak English and seems to have some sort of paranormal perception (she's seen ghosts and used to have ghost friends). Captain Kurt heads private security. 

They find the beacon but can't locate the boat, so Kurt investigates underwater and they pull up the tiny device attached to a cage, with the door bent as though something broke out. Tess refuses to believe he's dead but Lincoln wants to go home. 

By day four they resupply at a village where Lena drops in by helicopter after finding out about their expedition. Her father (cameraman Russ Landry) is missing with Emmet (all of them also appeared on the Undiscovered Country, and she and Lincoln were friends as children). She thinks she's found the only place the Magus could be—Bioúna—a place Jahel warns them not to go. 

They take a small boat inside, find and board the Magus. They immediately hear an odd groaning from inside and realize it's coming from the panic room. The door is welded shut from the outside. The cutting takes awhile, so Clark and Tess go into the editing bay and get the systems working. Lena goes in search of medical supplies for whatever they find in the room. Emilio is down in engineering with Jahel (who's pretty sure it isn't Emmet in there). Tess rummages through Emmet's quarters. 

The crew break inside but find the room empty, except for some odd ritualistic drawings and a blanket covering something. He pulls it back and then something explodes out (throwing Lena back) and escapes in the mayhem.

Lena has a wound on her leg so Lincoln tends to it, then he proceeds to punch out AJ for taking pictures rather than helping. They return to the panic room to examine the scene—food is left out and they find a photo of a man, Cam Travers, one of their producers, whom Emmet insisted on bringing on the expedition instead of Clark. Emmet had radioed Lena that Travers died of a fever (Tess isn't pleased to hear he spoke with her before he died). Lena then goes to Emmet's quarters and searches for some files.

On previous expeditions, Emilio explains, Emmet was beginning to spend a lot of nights off the ship, but told Emilio he was protected by magic. Jahel interrupts and warns that whatever it was in the panic room has tasted blood. She claims it's a dry spirit, sent back by the Devil to wander in search of blood. Emmet used blood to lure and capture it. Now it's fed with Lena's blood, growing strong enough to hunt. 

Lincoln announces they're leaving, but Tess refuses, and then they find the raft has been slashed, while the other one has floated away. Lincoln accuses Clark, but they're interrupted by some growling in the trees. Emilio needs two days to get the Magus moving. Lincoln says he has two hours to make high tide to push them out.

While work on the engines begins, Lena takes Lincoln and Tess to some tapes that Emmet made her promise to destroy in case something happened to him. They have a look and see he was involved in a host of odd rituals with some local tribes. Then they review his logs that it killed half the crew. It being Travers, who was thought buried. Emmet used the soul trap to draw the spirit into the panic room. The further they go into the Bioúna, the more physics appear to break down. 

Tess is angry Emmet never told him about this new quest. Her son is curious why he went off without her and accuses her of cheating on his father, and maybe guilt brought her to the Amazon. Clark seems to think if that thing is Travers he would know if Emmet is dead or alive.

The engines start up so they begin to push off, but the ship strikes something. AJ grabs his camera and goes off in search. Sammy follows but is killed. Whatever it is breaks the engines.

Lincoln decides to try to snare it with the soul catcher. Tess runs out with the photograph of Travers and demands to know if Emmet is alive. She gets thrown around by the ghost, but Lincoln lures it with blood and traps it in the soul catcher, which he tosses overboard. Tess finds a message scratched on her that Emmet is alive.

Clark reviews all the footage with AJ and the other cameras he's set up on board. He sees Kurt on one attempting to mess with the cameras and then alert someone by radio that Emmet may be alive and may have found the source, and if so, he'll put him down. 

Tess admits to Lincoln she thought she knew his father. The last tape had him heading west to the mountains, but they can go home. Lincoln disagrees, saying he's alive and she was right to drag them out there. He'll review the tapes and track him to see what he was on to. He wants to find the magic.

Day eight. Emilio has fully repaired the engines. They just need a place to continue their search. There are 104 tapes and no way to put them in any kind of order to establish a timeline. Lena remembers Emmet was bit by a bug on the hand, so they track the progress of the bite on the tapes to put things in perspective. They manage to establish eight possible sights and pick one to start. 

When Jahel is sleeping a dragonfly crawls into her mouth. She rises and goes to Lincoln's bunk, then to Tess, who wakes up. She warns (in English) she shouldn't have come here and needs to let him go. It's Emmet. Take Lincoln and go. Jahel then has a seizure. 

Everyone finds Tess' story a bit hard to swallow, but Kurt suggests it might be wise to turn around and go back. She's not going to. Lena points out the final tapes have him in the mountains talking to some kind of local militia. 

Lincoln wonders why Emmet came to Lena for medical help, but she suggests he resents that he has a medical degree and his father came to her instead. When they disembark in the jungle, they immediately find a colonial graveyard, then a noise that leads them to a little girl. Only it's a monkey with a doll's face on its head and everyone is thoroughly freaked. In fact the trees are full of dolls. Lena explains they're spirit trees and the locals bring gifts to appease the spirits. Lincoln finds his old teddy bear Marbeley and assumes Emmet must have put it there.

Kurt decides to make camp there for the night and AJ sets up cameras in the trees. Lincoln grabs his bear from the tree and one of the dolls turns its head to him as he walks back. 

Flashback to a young Lincoln memory when Emmet shares a moment with his son, telling the story of a shaman who told him life and death are the same weight on a clock. His wife made him a necklace explaining one day he would meet a child who was strong enough. So he gives it to him Lincoln. 

Lincoln admits to Lena he and his father barely spoke the year before he went missing, so he's interested that she and Emmet communicated. She thought he lost Marbeley years ago when he was 16 after Lincoln pitched him into the Indian Ocean and went off to boarding school. Lena suggests Emmet was just trying to protect him in coming to her instead of Lincoln. Emmet felt he could risk her. 

With everyone asleep Lincoln is suddenly yanked out of his tent into the trees. He runs back and tells them they're all leaving, despite Kurt advising against it. They head off but Tess is grabbed by something in the shallow water. AJ says he saw a dead hand grab her.

Lena remembers Emmet recounting a legend about the abandoned one, a little girl who played by herself in the forest. Her doll fell into the river so she went in after it and drowned. Her body was never found and her spirit gets lonely, so brings others to the river to drown. Locals began bringing her gifts so they would leave their families alone. That explains the dolls, and Lincoln suspects it's a British colonial family. Kurt notices he has the teddy bear and tells him to give it back. Lincoln returns it to the tree. The bear falls to the ground. Lincoln ties it again. It falls. Kurt takes it and secures it back. Then a whole bunch of dolls fall down.

Everyone takes off running back to the Magus, but they end up back at the doll tree. Tess is suddenly missing and they find her being dragged back into the water, so they jump in after, but she's gone. The ghost wants her mother, so Lincoln goes to the colonial burial ground and finds a woman's gravestone, digs up the body and takes it to the water. He hopes it's the little girl's mother, and begs to have his own returned. Finally a hand rises from the open grave and Tess climbs out. Everyone is thoroughly freaked.

On the Magus, Jahel begins to wake up. She wants to keep the spirit so they can find Emmet. Emilio warns her the longer she holds onto a spirit the more it takes when it leaves, and he can't lose her like her mother. Emmet speaks through her, grabs him and tells him he has to protect them.

Come morning they get back to the Magus. Lincoln goes to Jahel, who is still in bed, trying to communicate with his father. Lincoln wants him to know he understands. There's a whole world of things he never knew about, and Emmet was trying to protect him all this time. Jahel coughs up the dragonfly and it flies out a window. She apologizes that she couldn't hold on, but she could feel that he's alive.

Lincoln retrieves an old lunchbox that contains the necklace his father gave him and he puts it on. He chats with Lena after as they decompress about their overly stressful day. Then, in a flashback to 1989, Emmet films the two children, and as he zooms in he sees a mark on Lena's neck that matches the necklace. 

The Verdict:
I pretty much said it all in my intro. I'm totally sold on this, and quite excited that it's going to be a limited number of episodes (so far) which forces the writers to edit themselves.

The bizarre bits really work—monkey wearing mask, dragonfly in mouth, the absolute absurdity of camping overnight in the jungle next to a graveyard and a tree full of creepy dolls.

The pilot successfully launched a lot of mysteries. Aside from the larger supernatural scope, there are equally intriguing bits—Kurt's true mission on the expedition, Tess' reason for coming, and the notion that Lena is far more important than anyone realizes.

Sure, the characters do seem to accept a paranormal influence without question right from the beginning, and I've mentioned the everywhere cameras. But stuff like that isn't a big deal when the story is that good.

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