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‘The River’ brings found footage to small screen with a spooky success series set in Amazon

4 out of 5 stars | Rewarding character development leads audiences to invest in the series

Published: Friday, April 6, 2012

Updated: Friday, April 6, 2012 07:04

RIVER

Courtesy of ABC

The cast of ABC’s new drama bring thrills to the small screen.

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Courtesy of ABC

The River attempts to use the found footage technique for its program.

“There’s magic out there.” That’s Dr. Emmet Cole’s (Bruce Greenwood), a Steve Irwin−esque explorer out to find all that nature has to offer, catchphrase. He captivated millions with his wildlife show “The Undiscovered Country” and last set out to find one more piece of magic, hidden deep in the Boiuna region of the Amazon. That is where he went missing.

“The River” chronicles the team of rescuers’ journey to find Cole and simultaneously fight to survive the craziness of the mystical Amazon. Co−creators Oren Peli and Michael R. Perry employ the technique of found−footage filming, hoping to recreate the success of another found−footage phenomenon: “Paranormal Activity.” Steven Spielberg is an executive producer, perhaps in an attempt to get over this seemingly hit−or−miss period of his career.

Once Cole’s emergency beacon suddenly goes off, his determined wife Tess (Leslie Hope) and more reluctant son Lincoln (Joe Anderson) delve into the depths of the jungle to bring him back home. The one catch is that everything must be filmed. The crew includes the cynical producer Clark Quitely (Paul Blackthorne), the daughter of a missing cameraman, Lincoln’s childhood crush Lena Landry (Eloise Mumford) and secretive head Kurt Brynildson (Thomas Kretschmann). But, perhaps the most intriguing character on the show so far is the daughter of the ship’s mechanic, Jahel Valenzuela (Paulina Gaitan), the only member of the crew who doesn’t know English. She has a certain psychic ability that allows her to sense the dangers of the Boiuna, and sometimes speak to the spirits of the river.

It is the interactions between these differing personalities that make this show great. There is a huge power struggle, with everyone trying to further his or her own agenda while simultaneously trying to seem genuinely concerned with finding the good Doctor. Using any footage they have from Cole’s earlier expeditions, they navigate the jungle while trying desperately not to get lost themselves.

The found footage truly gives the show its sparkle. While the present footage is usually dark and brooding, the show’s directors really utilize “flashback” found footage to show the characters’ brighter pasts. Previous filming of Cole’s nature program really demonstrates the development of the characters and helps audiences get invested in them. This is a really smart way to build the dynamics of the current relationships, and creates a nice dichotomy between the nostalgia of the past and the pain of the present.

Peli and Perry also utilize the found−footage technique when forming different storylines, so that everything does not seem procedural. From the first two episodes, it is clear that members of the crew have different intentions for being in the search party. The intertwining of the mysteries has not been completely mastered yet, but the foundation has been built for the rest of the season to be thrilling.

But where are the chills and terrors? There are plenty. All the signs are in the cameras: footage becoming grainy, odd shadows being cast along the river, and the classic night vision all come into play. Combining this aspect with the strong character performances drives the show, keeping viewers constantly on the edges of their seats.

When audiences heard of a small−screen “Paranormal Activity”−type thriller coming, the idea was very exciting, and in the beginning it showed: almost 8 million viewers saw the premiere. But the show has had a tough time keeping the viewers, with an average of 4.5 million watching weekly. With the first season only eight episodes long though, there is plenty of time for people to catch it online and fall in love with the show. “The River” utilizes the found−footage technique well, but also makes sure it’s not just a gimmick.

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