Let’s just lay a popular myth to rest, shall we? If the polar ice caps dissolved like sugar cubes in a cup of hot tea tomorrow, the cumulative effect would likely raise the earth’s oceanic levels by a mere (and scientifically approximated) 400 ft. So the goofily apocalyptic premise put forth by Greenpeacers/screenwriters, Peter Rader and David Twohy (the total consumption of the earth’s land masses in a devastating tsunami-esque tidal wave) for director, Kevin Reynold’s Waterworld (1995) is fancifully over-exaggerated to say the very least. But hey, it’s sci-fi – not science fact; an important level of distinction I’ll presume went right over the heads of most critics, whose collective vitriol toward this mostly engaging – if occasionally idiotic, and, at times, definitely overblown, action/adventure yarn, was almost as ridiculous as the story being told herein. It’s difficult for me to embrace Waterworld as pure entertainment as it remains equally as challenging to dismiss it outright as poppycock nonsense; 135 minutes of my life that I can never get back.
Partly because director, Reynolds seems so gosh darn sincere in telling his horrendous tale, and also because its star, Kevin Costner spends the bulk of the plot looking like a wounded descendent of Universal’s creature from the black lagoon, trading in most of his gills for a hair-thinning mullet, I’ve grown somewhat more empathetic toward Waterworld over the years. But I have to be honest. I still can’t see how this movie cost a whopping $172 million to produce. The waterlogged sets, imaginative as they may occasionally be, look as though they could have been corralled from scrap heaps and abandon ship graveyards for under a hundred dollars; everything clasped together using a few rolls of duct tape, spray-painted with some discounted mis-tints of premium Sherwin-Williams. The most expensive set is the floating junk pile – nee city – where a contingent of mutant humanity finds itself trapped in the middle of nowhere after the great flood has already occurred. Row, row, row your boat…but I digress.
Waterworld’s faux forewarning to humanity (as in, ‘how to kill the planet in the next ninety minutes or your pizza’s free’) doesn’t really hold water (pun intended); or perhaps – does – too, much of it, in fact, and that’s the problem. There’s only so much Reynolds can do, making a movie about non-amphibious creatures – ‘humans’ – attempting to keep body and soul together on pontoon piles of debris, destined to slowly erode in the ever-corrosive ocean salt water. So, Reynolds and his scribes have given us a human/fish hybrid; the mariner (Kevin Costner) to ply our interests and keep them afloat. The Mariner can still pee standing up – webbed feet and all – and also drink his own distilled urine (mmmm…yummy). But he seems to be indifferent – to downright belligerent – toward humanity’s plight (after all, it doesn’t directly apply…and they did try to imprison and then execute him for being half fish). No, the Mariner is a very cold fish indeed, tossing his young charge, Enola (Tina Majorino) over the side of his feng shui catamaran whenever she ticks him off (even though she cannot swim) and turning down the initial – if reluctant – offer of great sex with art house vixen, Helen (Jeanne Tripplehorn). Aside: the mariner and Helen eventually partake of this opportunity on a much more mutually accepting/giving level.
What impressed me most about Reynolds’ would-be epic this second time around (I haven’t seen it since I saw it back in 1995) is how character-driven the plot remains. In an era where the audience is generally asked to invest themselves in stick-figure/cardboard cutouts (more proto and archetypes than people), Waterworld gives us a glimpse into the inner workings of these characters’ minds and hearts, affording the actors that rare opportunity to explore their motivations from the inside out. Costner is particularly good at this; his subtle darting of the eyes, a weary glance here/a forlorn gaze over there, giving a blueprint or map work of the mariner’s ever-evolving fiber of being. Tripplehorn and Majorino are almost as good; the latter provided with just enough intellectualized dialogue to make her seem both believably childlike, yet astutely adult. I suppose when the entire world is swallowed up by the ocean before your very eyes you tend to grow up fairly fast and with a deeper ‘preservationist’s’ perspective for both the sanctity and fragility of human life.
Let’s be clear on a single point: Waterworld will never be considered a masterpiece, although I do not believe this was ever the desire of its director. The studio, alas, hoped only for a rainmaker blockbuster. It never happened. The critics had their field day, referencing the movie with every bad pun from Kevin’s Gate (an allusion to Michael Cimino’s implosive, studio-crushing western, Heaven’s Gate 1980) to the even more transparent slam of Fishtar (1987). At a total cost of $235 million, Waterworld’s weenie-shrinking $88 million domestic gross must have sent seismic shivers up and down Universal/MCA’s corporate offices; the movie’s foreign intake ($176 million) managing to offset – if hardly re-balance – the scales. It only looks like a profit if you don’t factor in the percentage of revenues retained by theaters (up to half). So, Waterworld was immediately labeled a turkey; its’ fate left to home video (frequently, the saving grace of many an epic and minor flop alike). As such, Waterworld eventually went into the black, although it took a decade for it to crawl out of the soup.
In some ways, it’s a genuine shame the public did not flock to see this film; Reynolds blending his tin-can/clap-trapped futurism, infusing this atypical action picture with elements of the classic Hollywood western: a fascinating, if not altogether successful, amalgam. More often than not, however, Reynolds manages to pull something out of this murky mélange worthy of our time and this definitely says something about his directorial prowess. Unfortunately, intriguing ideas alone do not make for stellar storytelling. There are major hurdles to overcome in Waterworld. First, the representation of this Neanderthal-ish society, surviving on an ecosystem presumably deprived of the life-giving oxygen from trees. Oh sure, there’s a tomato plant here and there. Curiously, no one seems to think much of fishing for survival either.
Sink or swim (and Waterworld does a little of each) we are incongruously anchored to a counterculture of tech-savvy Hell’s Angel-type marauding pirates, who clearly have discovered the only Kawasaki jet-ski dealership in town. This enclave of filthy ne'er-do-wells (think, Viking class without the surströmning, spears or helmets) are easily stirred to fervor by their one-eyed demigod of choice; Deacon (Dennis Hopper at his most flamboyantly Hitlerian). Deacon’s floating empire is the rusted out hull of the – no, wait for it - infamous Exxon Valdez; a derelict whose bowels remain contaminated with the greasy ooze of black gold, very soon to play a major role in another man-made disaster for Waterworld’s penultimate pyrotechnic and thought-numbing finale.
I’ll just go on record; that I’ve grown weary of post-war/postmodern 21st century fictionalized cinema goo that incessantly trades hopefulness for the repetitively dire consequences mankind perpetually finds itself in, simply because it chose to burn fossil fuels. Waterworld isn’t exactly a champion of clean environment philosophizing either, badly mangling its ‘global warming conspiracy. Be that as it may, we open with a clever abuse of the Universal logo, its swirling globe suddenly transformed into a giant ball of water minus its easily identifiable land masses; an ominous voiceover informing the audience of the cataclysm. We’re propelled into an indeterminate time period. Somewhere in the future, humanity has been scattered – having rebuilt their homes from the rusty scrap of derelict sea vessels. Exactly how these elaborate communities (referred to as atolls in the movie) were fabricated to withstand hurricanes, tidal waves or other storms at sea without the benefit of power tools – or hydro, period! - is never entirely explained away. We also forgo explanations regarding public sanitation and the gathering and preparation of food. In effect, we’re left to put in our own details, or simply disregard the feasibility of the movie’s botched premise entirely. Aside: Waterworld seems to play better if the viewer suffers from chronic amnesia and a deplorable lack of curiosity to make such inquiries.
Like all movies based on the like-minded day of Armageddon, Waterworld remains nondescript about mankind’s future ambitions - except to state that they’re all bad; the world overrun by an autocratic thug, impervious to pain, while deriving the greatest of satisfaction from inflicting his epic tortures and miseries on others. Dennis Hopper’s Deacon, as example, loses an eye at the beginning of Waterworld and doesn’t even blink (pun intended). Nasty piece of work too, that prosthetic loosely affixed to his gaping socket, only to pop out a few moments later, necessitating an eye patch.
The Shangri-La for all of the mindless mercenaries, co-habitating in Waterworld, is ‘Dryland’; a mythologized land mass no one has ever seen before. A mysterious stranger sails his catamaran into their midst, bartering for necessary supplies with highly prized ‘earth’ and other trinkets collected from a bygone ecosphere. The Mariner is too mysterious and aloof for his own good; definite signs he is up to no good. So, the ‘atollers’ overpower and imprison him in a metal cage dangling over a precipice of slimy jaundice-yellow brine. The popular Salem witch hunt vote is for dunking and drowning. But before this public execution can take place, Helen elects to learn where the Mariner acquired his dry land. She also makes plans to escape from this den of iniquity aboard a fanciful hot-air balloon piloted by the inventor, Old Gregory (Michael Jeter). In the badly bungled homage to Dorothy’s failed escape from Oz in the Wizard’s balloon, Gregory cannot figure out how his own contraption works. He leaves the floating junk pile without Helen, who now turns to the Mariner for her chance at freedom. He remains noncommittal, but she senses he knows more than he is telling. Hence, when Deacon and his local pirates (called Smokers) decide to invade the atoll, launching muskets and fireballs into this tiny community and killing many, Helen makes the Mariner promise to take her and a young charge, Enola abroad his catamaran, far away from this imminent, hellish death.
Deacon has come for Enola who has the map to Dryland tattooed on her back. Alas, in saving Helen and Enola from Deacon, their concerns for self-preservation have now become the Mariner’s responsibility. Unable to warm to their unwelcomed presence, the Mariner is boorish and stern; ordering Enola not to color the decks of his ship with crayons she has discovered below deck; another relic collected by the Mariner from that netherworld belonging to the past. The Mariner is not into discipline. Hence, when Enola sufficiently ticks him off, he simply seizes her by the scruff of her neck, tossing the child into the ocean to drown. Thankfully, Helen dives in to save the girl – the Mariner feeling twinges of guilt as he turns his ship around to collect them both from the waves. Helen threatens the Mariner with bodily harm; then tempts him with an offer of sexual conquest. Neither prospect proves enticing.
The Mariner sails to a buoy inhabited by some friends, unaware they have already been slaughtered by Deacon, who has anticipated the Mariner’s next move and is laying in wait. Smokers appear on the horizon, on their jet skis and in a biplane; Helen’s ill-timed harpooning of the plane’s pilot nearly decapitating the Mariner’s catamaran of its sizeable mast. As retribution for this near fiasco, the Mariner crudely lops off Helen’s hair with a knife; Enola enduring a similar fate when she opens her mouth to defend Helen. Demanding to know where the dry earth has come from, Helen is put into a makeshift diving bell by the Mariner, who plunges fathoms below to reveal to her the ancient ruins of the city of Denver; its collapsed skyscrapers overgrown with barnacles and seaweed. Helen is naturally overcome by this spectacle.
Too bad their diving expedition has bought Deacon invaluable time to discover their whereabouts. Capturing the Mariner and Helen, Deacon uses their imminent murders to snuff out Enola from hiding. Taking the child hostage, Deacon orders his second in command, the Enforcer (R.D. Call) to dispose of the Mariner and Helen, who narrowly escape his wrath by diving below the waves. The Mariner breathes for Helen until the coast is clear. Upon resurfacing, the couple discovers Deacon and his men have utterly decimated the Mariner’s ship. Little remains of the catamaran except a fragment of its rusted hull, still smoldering in embers and taking on considerable ballast; sure to sink before the night is through. However, all is not lost – thanks to Old Gregory discovering the Mariner and Helen from his hot air balloon. Arriving at another atoll, the Mariner steals a jet ski and pursues Deacon to his home base; the Exxon Valdez. It is a time for celebration. For Deacon is bartering with his disgruntled, but easily swayed slaves, claiming Enola’s map will point the way to Dryland and all of their salvation. After ordering his serfs to row to the ‘promised land’, Deacon is surprised by the Mariner, who makes his position aboard the Valdez known. The Mariner threatens to drop a flare into the ship’s cargo hold flooded with oil. Deacon calls the bluff. So the Mariner, who never bluffs, drops the flare anyway; the Exxon exploding below decks in a hellish and all-consuming fireball that tears the ship apart. In the ensuing panic, the Mariner manages his rescue of Enola; shimmying up a rope dropped from Gregory’s balloon. They are pursued by Deacon.
In their tussle, Enola loses her footing and plunges into the sea. Helen manages to knock Deacon loose by throwing a bottle at him. He resurfaces, instructing his Smokers to collect the child from the sea. As the marauding pirates prepare their triangulation of this retrieval on their jet skis, the Mariner ties a bungee around his waist, leaping from Gregory’s balloon down toward the waters. The snap at the end of the rope, just inches away from the water’s surface, affords the Mariner a split second to yank Enola to safety; the Smokers smashing into one another and Deacon, who almost had Enola in his grasp, thus taking out the last remnants of Deacon and his band of cutthroats.
Gregor deciphers the cryptic Asian tattoo on Enola’s back and together they discover Dryland – actually the top third of Mount Everest, still protruding from the waters, as fragrant, fertile and green as ever. Let’s just set aside the fact that the air would be much too thin for anyone to breathe – certainly, for the Mariner. Set against sandy beaches and a tropical terrain unlikely to be discovered surrounding the real Mount Everest (especially since this sequence was shot in Hawaii), the Mariner informs Helen he cannot remain. As Helen and Enola look on, the Mariner departs for the ocean – his only home.
In this fairly bittersweet farewell, Waterworld achieves a sort of enfeebled parallel with John Ford’s The Searchers (1956): Kevin Costner’s lanky he-man-fish recast in the John Wayne role as this film’s prerequisite God’s lonely man, doomed to traverse the face of this submarined planet in perpetuity. It’s a fitting finale here too; the Mariner – having had his way with Helen, and proven his merit as well as his sexual prowess to these mismanaged remnants of mankind, now setting a new course for his own kind with a noblesse oblige. Like too many ‘competently made’ – if marginal, and marginalized – movies gone before and since its time, Waterworld’s toxic buzz and disastrous reception has effectively managed to obscure its virtues along the way. These still exist and are amply on display for anyone with an open mind and the willingness to set aside a critic’s prejudices. At its best, Waterworld is a postmodern/post-apocalyptic escapist fantasy/nightmare with the proverbial warm and fuzzy ‘feel good’ finale tacked on for mediocre measure. At its’ worst, it remains an awful lot of money, spent indifferently on a thinly veiled global warming campaign put forth by leftist pundits in the days before Al Gore’s ‘inconvenient’ truisms.
Interestingly, Waterworld was the fourth – and final- collaborative effort between Kevin Costner and Kevin Reynolds. The film’s implosion sent both men’s careers into a tailspin. One can argue Costner’s reputation eventually recovered. He has, in more recent times, once again risen through the ranks as a bankable ‘action’ star, albeit in some very disposable entertainments that, in no way, exercise the girth of his creative talents. Lest we forget, here is a star who dazzled us in megahits like DePalma’s The Untouchables (1987) and Bull Durham (1988); who went on to move us to tears with his directorial debut, Dances With Wolves (1990, and a masterpiece by any stretch of the imagination) and then towered with sheer brilliance, as the effective prosecutor in Oliver Stone’s J.F.K. (1991). Waterworld ought to have left Costner at the pinnacle of his creative powers, both in front of and behind the camera, as the movie’s co-producer. Instead, the pall of its fiscal miscalculation hung around Costner’s neck like a millstone; dragging his future prospects to a depth even greater than the oceanic foundation; compounded by Costner’s other sci-fi misfire; this time as both director and star of the imprudent, The Postman, just two years later.
Screenwriter, David Twohy has cited Mad Max: The Road Warrior (1981) as his inspiration in conceiving Waterworld. Both movies were photographed by cinematographer extraordinaire, Dean Semler. Recognizing that the strength of any movie based on a clash of wills rests with the effectiveness of its villain, Reynolds seems to have resigned himself to Dennis Hopper as a rather foppish, preening and overly zealous evil doer. Subtlety isn’t Hopper’s métier. Waterworld’s antagonist might have been more interesting with Gene Hackman (Reynolds first choice) or even the likes of James Caan, Laurence Fishburne or Gary Oldman at the helm. All of the aforementioned turned Reynolds down, leaving Hopper to cut a fairly wide swath as the twisted loon of the piece. His performance has its charm – overbearing and neurotically insane; but he never outgrows this persona of evil incarnate; repeatedly hitting the audience over the head with his one-eyed leering and jeering.
Jeanne Tripplehorn is a guilty pleasure of mine; an actress generally underused and underrated in her own time, although I could have easily done without the twenty-second nudie shot of her dumpy butt, shamelessly flashed for gratuitous purposes only, and, without apology. Tripplehorn gives us an occasionally pouty, though mostly fiery ‘his gal Friday’ in Waterworld’s first act. But she has precious little to do in the last third of the movie and it’s a genuine pity; her character somehow seeping into the narrative cracks as token estrogen, wearing some of the most ill-fitting costumes from the hopelessly outdated Sheena – Queen of the Jungle collection. Tripplehorn’s also ill-served by the short hairdo that, regrettably, she sports for more than half the movie; the Mariner’s pixie cut with a Ginsu making her look like Julia Roberts’ Tinkerbell from Spielberg’s equally as mismanaged flight into J.M. Barrie fantasy realm with Hook (1991).
No one remembers the violent hurricane that swept into Hawaii’s Waipio Valley and destroyed Waterworld’s multi-million dollar set midway through shooting. This needed to be rebuilt at a considerable expense, adding to the already escalating budget. But this really is the moment when the movie’s already hefty overhead began to take on more ballast than any normal theatrical release could sustain and recoup. There’s always a tendency to assume profligate spending and a sort of artist’s laissez faire attitude were responsible for throwing the tenuous cost balance/overruns into the proverbial red. But in Waterworld’s case, Reynolds was hampered by circumstances beyond his control, rather than an egotist’s desire to simply make ‘his’ movie ‘his’ way. To the executives counting the ticket sales, this didn’t matter and Reynold’s post-Waterworld career has yielded a sporadic and artistically uneven spate of only three movies and a few TV episodes: a genuine shame. Because it isn’t every director who can be thrown into the deep end of the pool and come up with effective storytelling despite a semi-unoriginal and occasionally lousy script. Waterworld will never be high art. But Reynolds makes it highly watchable and in the intervening decades since, it is perhaps hide time, rather than the high tide of criticism lobbed at the movie then, that ought to make us pause and reconsider Waterworld for what it actually is: a disposable, obtuse, but nevertheless diverting way to spend an hour or two. Come up for air from all the backlash and you may find a movie worth watching more than once.
Universal Home Video’s Blu-ray is barebones. Before its’ debut, Universal prepared a lavish junket, detailing the making of the movie. This was feature-length and aired on television just days prior to the theatrical premiere. Alas, it isn’t included on this disc. We won’t poo-poo its absence any further. Waterworld looks spectacular in hi-def 1080p. Rich saturated colors abound. Flesh tones have a natural sunburnt orange quality – more curious in Costner’s visage, perhaps. I mean, here is a guy who supposedly spends nine-tenths of his life below the surface of the waves, remember? He ought to be pale and pasty. But I digress. Fine detail is wonderfully realized. Occasionally, black levels crush. But overall, I was extremely pleased with the visuals herein: ditto for the 5.1 audio, showing off James Newton Howard’s bombastic score to its very best advantage. There’s really nothing to complain about. You’ll love what you see and hear. Highly recommended for presentation/mildly recommended for content; Waterworld may not be great, but it’s hardly a turkey. With Thanksgiving just around the corner, choose your giblets wisely. And pass the kelp!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)