As the waters rise, the world sinks down – and WaterWorld went down with it in the very average mega-budget sci-fi
Director: Kevin Reynolds
Cast: Kevin Costner (The Mariner), Dennis Hopper (The Deacon), Jeanne Tripplehorn (Helen), Tina Marjorino (Enola), Michael Jeter (Old Gregor), Gerard Murphy (The Nord), RD Call (Atoll Enforcer), Kim Coates (Drifter #2), John Fleck (Smoker Doctor), Robert Joy (Smoker Ledger), Jack Black (Smoker Pilot), Zakes Mokae (Priam)
In 1995 they called it “Kevin’s Gate”. Costner cashed all – and I pretty much mean all – his superstar chips to make Waterworld, a sort of water-logged Mad Max crossed with a Leone Western, starring himself as a nameless mutant with gills behind his ears. You needed to be the Biggest Box Office Star in the World to get that one up and running. But then Costner’s last “all-in” bet had been Dances with Wolves – and that won seven Oscars. What could do wrong?
Waterworld has been pretty much defined – then and now – as the (at the time) most expensive film ever made, which went on to be a damp squip, a box-office stinker. It’s not that: it’s a solid, entertaining-enough B-movie with some neat Dystopian ideas. In 2500, the world has been completely flooded after the polar ice caps melted. Mankind exists in rusted boats and small floating camps on the ocean. Dry land is a myth and actual soil is worth a fortune. Costner’s Mariner ends up protecting Helen (Jeanne Tripplehorn) and her adopted daughter Enola (Tina Marjorino), as Enola has (handily tattooed on her back) a map to the last piece of dryland left in the world. But Enola’s map is hunted by the Smokers, and their maniacal leader The Deacon (Dennis Hopper), who want to claim Dry Land for themselves.
Waterworld largely lives on as a hugely successful stunt show at Universal Studios (I’ve seen it and it is amazing – all the exciting bits of the film, done in about fifteen minutes) that has been running non-stop since 1995 (other shows, based on more successful movies, have long since disappeared). It focuses on all the stuff that’s good about the film. Kevin Reynolds’ can shoot the heck out of action scenes and professional stuntmen really know their business. The best sequences in Waterworld involve pounding action – jet ski chases, the Mariner’s transforming trimaran, jet skis flying over walls and diving under water, stunning boat chases – and they are great.
They also exploit, in their rusted crap-sack props, one of the film’s other triumphs, it’s detailed world-building design. Sure, it owes a heavy-debt to the cobbled-together semi-steam-punk of Mad Max, with rust that covers everything, adapted wet-suits and rags (augmented with various pieces of fishing equipment and light fabrics) that characters wear, the bashed out colours contrasted with the glorious blue of the water. But the film never looks anything less than an outre mad-house. Throw in James Newton Howard’s very effective score – romantic and mournful when required, but then pounding with heroic action beat – and you’ve got elements of a decent movie.
But decent is all it ever is. Because, aside from the novelty of being set on water (a hugely time- and money-consuming expense, that partly explained why the film went zillions of dollars over budget), there isn’t anything that new about the story. A gruff outsider is roped into grudgingly protecting a mother and a daughter, but then his heart-is-melted – just as the villains turn up to snatch the daughter away. The villains are cartoonish monsters (Dennis Hopper seems to be on a mission to counter the water-logged misery of most of the rest of the performers by acting as much as possible), who are either ingenious or incompetent depending on the requirements of the script. The quest for the land-of-plenty is so familiar, you could scribble it down on a postcard in advance.
The question is, why did Costner want to make this? It’s not even a part that showcases him very well. I’ve always found Costner’s mega-stardom a bit of a mystery: once he graduated from more young, naïve parts (such as in The Untouchables), action films more and more exposed his slightly blank sulkiness as an actor. Perhaps due to the pressure of Waterworld (he worked non-stop, six day weeks, mostly on or in the water, for six months), perhaps due to his inability to find any warmth in a role he clearly sees as an Eastwoodish man-with-no-name, he largely comes across as sullen and hard-to-engage with. This is double hard for a film set in a dystopian future, where we really need to understand and relate to the hero in order to get into the world.
The rest of the cast follow his lead – no one, apart from maybe Hopper, really looks like they want to be there and most of them give of a sense of suffering under the constant threat of accidentally drowning. Tripplehorn isn’t helped by playing a dull, functionary, by-the-numbers character although Marjorino does get to have a bit of spark as plucky Enola. None of the characters step out of the formulaic surroundings of the film they have been trapped in.
You can have a bit of fun with the film’s wonky science. The Mariner is introduced pissing into a bucket and converting the piss into drinking water: cool character establishing moment, but since the salt quota of piss is higher than sea water, why not just convert the sea water? (I’m staggered at the idea that, in 500 years, no one has discovered a way to make sea water drinkable). If the polar ice caps melted, they would not flood the world as much as this. Would an oil tanker and fleet of jet skis really have managed to eek out the 235k cubic metres of oil it carried for 500 years? (How do they even convert it into petrol?) Where are all the fish? Why is the Mariner the only one with deep sea diving equipment – especially when he has flipping gills and doesn’t need it?
But hey, it’s only a movie. Waterworld eventually became profitable: but not till after it had cemented itself in the public perception as an uber-stinker. Really, it’s not that different from Avatar in its functional story, it just made a worse job of selling its big-budget effects as must-see moments. Costner’s alleged megalomania on set didn’t help (re-writing scenes, ordering special effects cover his receding hairline, falling out with Reynolds during editing – so much so Reynolds walked out), but really Waterworld isn’t terrible, just a huge lump of soggy okay. But that Universal Stunt Show? It’s the bee’s knees.