Every Millennial with a cable TV connection has watched the 1994 not-a-cult-classic-but-kind-of-a-cult-classic film, The River Wild, right? Don’t you dare lie to me and say that you never came across it because it used to air every other night. So, even if you didn’t watch it in its entirety in one sitting, network television made sure that you got the entire picture in parts. I will be the first to admit that I haven’t watched the movie in a long time and that I had no idea about the existence of a remake, reimagining, or standalone sequel to it. That said, I vividly remember Meryl Streep, Kevin Bacon, John C. Reilly, and David Strathairn’s performances in it and the knot of panic that I experienced every time the Hartmans tried to escape the robbers, Wade and Terry. Did I experience even an inkling of that emotion in the boringly titled River Wild? The short and long answer is no.
Ben Ketai’s River Wild, which he has co-written with Mike Nguyen Le, tells the story of Joey, who is driving away from her estranged marriage or romantic relationship to attend her brother Gray’s rafting expedition. Apparently, it’s a paid gig, and he has two customers, Karissa and Van. But, unbeknownst to Joey, Trevor has joined what was supposed to be a somewhat family-exclusive vacation. What is the problem with Trevor? Well, without beating around the bush, he is a felon. He has been to jail. Hence, he is a liability. However, since there’s no way to back out of this situation, the five of them get on a raft and begin their perilous river-based journey. When night falls, the group decides to camp at a relatively safe spot. Van brings out the drinks. Since Gray is sticking to his sobriety, he stays away from alcohol. Joey goes into her tent pretty early. That leaves Trevor, Karissa, and Van, and they get pretty drunk. While Karissa hangs back with Gray, Van heads into the woods to relieve herself, and Trevor follows suit. Moments later, Van is injured, and she silently alleges that Trevor is the perpetrator, thereby causing the trip to spiral out of control.
The River Wild’s emotional lynchpin was the survival of Gail and Tom’s marriage, and the river and Wade served as these demonic forces of nature that would either break the couple or make their relationship stronger. What is up with River Wild? If I have to make a connection with the 1994 film, Trevor and Gray are essentially the updated versions of Wade and Terry, and instead of a romantic relationship, you have the sibling relationship between Gray and Joey. The other two passengers are just there. Now, here’s the thing: Wade and Terry were running away with their loot. So they had an endgame. Gail and Tom had to decide if they wanted to stay together. So they had an endgame too. Without Googling the plot synopsis, I bet nobody can say what Trevor, Gray, or Joey’s endgames are. What is waiting for them at the end of The Beast (the original movie had The Gauntlet, and this movie has The Beast)? What does the journey symbolize? I don’t know. Are the rest of the characters there to increase the body count and make Trevor look sinister? Yes, because that’s the only purpose that they serve.
A survival movie without any personal stakes is boring. In addition to that, the characters have to be interesting. There has to be something for me so that I can root for the heroes on the screen and hate the hell out of the villain. If I am taken out of my viewing experience, and I keep hoping for the characters to die as soon as possible so that the movie can end and I can go and watch something substantial, then you’ve failed as a survival horror movie. Trevor goes on these expository and annoying monologues about his prison life and how much he has sacrificed so that Gray can keep a squeaky-clean image. There’s something about Joey not being a good support system for Gray and Joey’s hatred towards Gray because of how much leeway he gives Trevor. And it’s all too surface-level for me to care. I don’t even want the writers to abide by the “show, don’t tell” rule. Just tell it in a way that sounds interesting and has depth. At least then, I can understand what is at play and view the rafting expedition from the perspectives of all these characters.
It may seem like I am pulling out these comparisons out of my imaginary hat, but River Wild has brought them upon itself by being a “standalone sequel” (whatever that means) to The River Wild. So, here’s my biggest criticism about Ketai’s movie: it looks horrible. Regardless of your opinions about movies made until the mid-2000s, i.e., when movies were shot on film instead of digital, you have to admit that they looked good. I mean, they look better than most recent movies with budgets that cost more than $300 million. So, if you’re going up against a film from the 1990s, you have to knock it out of the park. Unfortunately, Ketai, along with his team, goes for the muted, dull, and gray look, and since most of the movie takes place at night, in dark forests, or on overcast days, it’s not a pleasing sight. The 1994 film was probably more tense and gruesome than this one, and the visuals were bright and visible, thereby proving my theory that a dark film doesn’t need to be underlit to the extent that it seems ugly. There are some decent choices in terms of camera angles and editing. The action is not good, but the stunt work is worthy of appreciation. Stunt experts need all the attention in the world, period.
Coming to the performances, I don’t think any of the actors are bad. Leighton Meester tries her best to be a believable medic who is trying to stay on top of this insane situation. Taran Killam essays his character’s gullibility. Despite her limited screen time, Eve Connolly conveys her character’s fear and helplessness. Olivia Swann does a decent job of portraying her character’s dogged determination to make it out of this alive. All of them do a lot of stunt work. It’s strenuous. They make do with what they have, but none of them are memorable. The only one who manages to make some kind of mark is, of course, Adam Brody. That’s not a surprise, though, because he is an incredible actor. Out of everything he has done, if you need one project to make you realize his worth, it’s The Kid Detective. As soon as you come to that realization, you’ll probably come to the conclusion that Brody shouldn’t be wasting his time on these sub-par direct-to-video releases. I know that most of Hollywood is on strike. However, as soon as things return to some form of normalcy, Brody needs to get a better agent who’ll help him bag the roles he deserves.
In conclusion, River Wild is not a good movie. If you want to watch a group of people go on a deadly and stressful rafting mission, just watch the original 1994 film. I won’t recommend wasting your time on this. That said, what you have just read is my opinion and my opinion only. Please decide what you want to do with your time, money, and energy, form your opinion, and feel free to share it with all of us.