Should I Watch..? 'Waterworld'
What's the big deal?
Waterworld is a sci-fi action film released in 1995 and was the most expensive film ever made at the time of release. The film depicts a world where both polar ice-caps have melted and ocean levels have risen to the point where dry land has become just a myth. In this ramshackle floating society, a mysterious sailor joins forces with a young woman to rescue a child from the clutches of villainous pirates. The film stars Kevin Costner (who also co-produced), Dennis Hopper, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Tina Majorino and Michael Jeter and was directed by Kevin Reynolds. The film received a mixed response from critics and although it bombed at the box office, the film eventually did recoup its massive budget with final global earnings of $264 million. It has since become a cult film and has inspired a number of attractions at Universal Studios theme parks around the world, all of which are still running more than twenty years after the films release.
What's it about?
Years after the polar ice caps have melted and covered every continent on Earth, the remains of society have gathered on huge man-made atolls - floating communities that allow trading to occur between its citizens and those who live on the endless waves beyond their walls. One such drifter, known as the Mariner, arrives on his trimaran to trade some ultra-rare dirt but falls foul of the locals when they discover that the Mariner has webbed feet as well as gills. They imprison him and sentence him to death.
Suddenly, the atoll is attacked by the Smokers - jet-ski riding pirates loyal to their leader Deacon. They are seeking a child called Enola who apparently has the key to finding Dryland, a supposedly mythical place. Sure enough, Enola and her adult guardian Helen escape along with the Mariner who finds himself pursued by Deacon's men. But is Dryland real and can the Mariner really take Enola to it?
Smoker Plane Pilot
Peter Rader, David Twohy
Release Date (UK)
11th August, 1995
Action, Adventure, Sci-Fi
Academy Award Nomination
Worst Supporting Actor (Hopper)
Razzie Award Nominations
Worst Film, Worst Actor (Costner), Worst Director
What's to like?
For a film that has been a punchline for the last twenty years, it's almost a shock to find that in reality, Waterworld is a half-decent action film with huge floating sets and a style of action all of its own. The film owes a huge debt to the likes of Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome with its take on post-apocalyptic life but the sets are brilliantly designed and constructed, giving a depth to the material that is possibly lacking from the screenplay. The large number of water-based vehicles, from Costner's stripped-back trimaran to the inexplicable number of jet-skis that survived the end of the world, also help elevate the action sequences when they do arrive and create an almost unique series of action scenes that are great to watch. How else do you explain the continued popularity of the live-action shows at Universal Studio's theme parks?
Costner has a habit of playing softly-spoken heroes but his Mariner is a curious role, making Hopper's more bombastic baddie the more memorable character by far. Much like his over-the-top appearance in Speed, Hopper delivers a perfectly pantomime villain that is pitched at the exact level the material demands. Truthfully, the film has less substance than it thinks it has so my advice is to just enjoy the spectacle and don't ask too many questions. It's like a Fast & Furious movie - not that smart but entertaining in its own way.
- Reynolds and Costner fought constantly behind the camera, resulting in Reynolds leaving the project and Costner taking over to finish directing the film. Reynolds was quoted as saying that Costner should only work on films that he directs because that way, he could work with his favourite actor and director.
- The film originally had a budget of $100 million but after the multimillion dollar set was wrecked by a hurricane, the budget spiralled to an estimated $175 million - a then-record until it was beaten by James Cameron's Titanic. Costner invested some $22 million of his own money into the project.
- Another reason behind the troubled production was the inequality between Costner's accommodation and that of the crew. Costner stayed at a $4500-a-night ocean-front villa with butler, chef and a private swimming pool. The crew stayed in uninsulated condos with no air-con. None of the sets or crew boats had toilets either, meaning filming had to be stopped to allow visits to nearby portable toilets on a barge.
- The script underwent 36 different drafts by six different writers including an uncredited Joss Whedon who described the experience as seven weeks of hell. None of the writers took into consideration the fact that if the polar caps did melt, sea levels would only rise a few hundred feet - nothing like enough to result in the end of civilisation.
What's not to like?
Waterworld is not a film that rewards anyone who thinks about things too much. It exists in its own world, seemingly separate from the laws of plausibility and reason. Even little things make absolutely no sense - given how expensive paper has apparently become, why does Deacon smoke so much instead of recycling the cigarette paper? This is a really dumb film, filled with characters that never act as you'd expect and lack any sort of characterisation or development. In essence, you've already seen the best bits of the movie if you've seen the live show at the theme park.
The set-up isn't the only dumb thing about the film - the narrative is pretty one-dimensional and lacks any sort of surprise or explanation. At no point is the mystery of Enola's tattoo properly explained or even how she came into contact with Helen. The whole thing feels lazily cobbled together with no attempt to link it all up. You end the film with more questions than you had at the start and before you know it, you begin to understand why this film has the reputation it has. It is overly ambitious and hampered by off-screen issues like Costner's alleged interference with Reynold's direction, a film that can't quite be saved by the high level of stunt-work and action displayed.
Should I watch it?
It isn't as bad as history suggests but Waterworld is as ridiculous and overblown as it is well-produced and entertaining. It's the definition of dumb fun - an exciting and imaginative romp that falls apart under closer inspection. It would have benefitted from a more engaging leading actor, a tighter story and a bit more thought behind it but as it is, the film is destined to forever remain associated with Hollywood excess and poor business acumen.
Great For: jet-ski retailers, in-bred swimmers, defying expectations
Not So Great For: studio accountants, being taken seriously, plot-hole spotters
What else should I watch?
There aren't many films that are brave enough to have a full-on action movie on a flooded set in the way Waterworld does. I can only think of Hard Rain, another ambitious project featuring Christian Slater trying to prevent Morgan Freeman from robbing a bank in a town experiencing catastrophic flooding. Climate change, for whatever reason, doesn't appear to lend itself to entertaining audiences that well - The Day After Tomorrow features flooding among a whole host of instantaneous weather disasters because of... urm… and Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth might be more scientific but isn't what you'd call entertaining.
Costner wasn't put off from appearing in overblown post-apocalyptic dramas after his bruising experience with Waterworld. 1997's The Postman is a ridiculous neo-western featuring another unnamed drifter played by Costner bringing hope to the remains of humanity by... dressing up in a postman's uniform. Critically savaged by critics, the film bombed spectacularly with global earnings well below its $80 million budget. And it pains me to say it because I'm a huge fan of his but Tom Petty's appearance as the mayor of Bridge City might be the only real highlight of this certified turkey. Thankfully, Costner appears to have learnt his lesson now although his career has never quite recovered from these costly failures.
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