“Look, it’s the gentleman guppy”: “Waterworld” at 25

Waterworld Kevin Costner in Waterworld (Universal Pictures)

Say what you will about Kevin Costner’s disasterpiece, but it’s a reminder of the time when studios were willing to wade into uncharted seas.

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Under normal circumstances, we would currently be awash in a sea of enormously expensive big-screen blockbusters that spare no expense to dazzle your eyes with spectacle. And yet, despite the astronomical sums being spent, very few of these films ever make you feel as if something is being risked by the filmmakers. Oh sure, there are exceptions to this, like James Cameron and Christopher Nolan, who have proven themselves enough times at the box office over the years to continue to receive funding for their increasingly elaborate productions.

For the most part, however, studios are perfectly willing to toss around enormous sums of money, but only if they are reasonably certain that the films will be popular enough with the masses to ensure a healthy profit. This is why so many of the big ticket items of recent years feel so depressingly familiar—any aspect that could possibly be regarded as a question mark tends to be reduced, smoothed over or eliminated entirely, long before the project hits the cameras, lest it risk derailing the money train.

As a result of this, it must be absolutely baffling for people who have never encountered Waterworld before to see it for the first time and realize that something so bizarre not only managed to get made but was the most expensive American film ever made up to its release in 1995. Not only that, that money was spent without any of the traditional backstops that one might expect—it wasn’t a sequel to a big hit nor an adaptation of a familiar property. While it did have a big star in the lead, it was one whose recent films hadn’t exactly set the world on fire.

Waterworld might have had the outward form of a four-quadrant blockbuster, but it seemed to go out of its way to throw as many monkey wrenches into the formula as possible. For example, while there have been countless adventure epics featuring a taciturn loner navigating the ravages of a post-apocalyptic world while attempting to save/rescue humanity’s last hope from the clutches of unspeakable evil, this remains the only one that I can recall in which the opening scene features said hero drinking his own recycled urine. 

Waterworld might have had the outward form of a four-quadrant blockbuster, but it seemed to go out of its way to throw as many monkey wrenches into the formula as possible.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way, of course. In fact, in its earliest form, Waterworld was born out of an opportunity that movie screenwriter Peter Rader had to pitch an idea for a Mad Max knockoff to B-movie impresario Roger Corman in the mid-’80s. After coming up with the twist of setting the story on the water, Rader made his pitch to Corman, who quickly rejected it because, ironically, he feared that the additional expense of shooting on water would require an expenditure of almost $3 million dollars.

In 1992, the screenplay was bought by Universal and Kevin Reynolds, who had just had a hit with Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991) was hired to direct. Once he signed on, the idea reuniting with that film’s star, Kevin Costner—who just happened to be the biggest male star around at the time—to play the lead. Although Reynolds and Costner had been longtime friends, they famously squabbled during the making of Robin Hood and made such a reunion unlikely. Nevertheless, the two met up to reconcile and Costner signed on to star and co-produce. 

Then came the actual production, the gruesome details of which have reported in such voluminous detail over the years that I will only skim over a few of the particulars here. For starters, as anyone who has studied the history of Jaws (1975) can attest, shooting on water can be fiendishly complicated even under the most ideal of circumstances. The location that was selected, Hawaii’s Kawaihae Harbor was not ideal—the name translates to “rough waters,” after all—and at one point, one of the sets became unstable and wound up sinking. 

Speaking of the sets, they and the boats used in the film had to be constructed so that they would be seaworthy and facilitate filming. Knowing that they were the only game in town, the local merchants raised their prices for the necessary building materials considerably. The screenplay was in a constant state of flux as new writers (Joss Whedon among them) were brought in to make sense of it all. To top it all off, tensions between Reynolds and Costner, which had already begun to rekindle in the wake of the failure of Rapa Nui (1994) a ridiculous South Seas-set adventure that Reynolds directed and Costner produced, began to rise steadily during the increasingly protracted production to the point where Reynolds left the project during post-production and Costner took over. All of this, from the conflicts to the cost overruns, was breathlessly reported in the press, who took to referring to the film as Kevin’s Gate, or Fishtar.

Dennis Hopper in Waterworld (Universal Pictures)

As for the film itself, it is set in the year 2500, long after climate change has put every continent on Earth underwater and left the survivors existing on boats and ramshackle floating atolls while speculating that a mythical “Dryland” does exist out there somewhere. Costner plays The Mariner, a loner who has somehow developed gills behind his ears and webbed feet that help him on deep dives to recover precious dirt that he can sell at the atolls. One visit does not go well and he winds up being imprisoned and sentenced to death. Just then, the atoll is attacked by the Smokers, a fearsome gang of jet-ski riding, chain-smoking maniacs who are led by the crazed Deacon (Dennis Hopper) and whose base of operations I will leave for you to discover.

During the confusion, the Mariner is freed by bartender Helen (Jeanne Tripplehorn) but she insists that he take her and Enola (Tina Majorino), the young girl she cares for, along with him. As it turns out, Deacon and the Smokers are after Enola, who has a tattoo on her back that, rumor has it, is actually a map pointing to Dryland. The Smokers eventually abduct Enola, leading to the inevitable action climax where the Mariner takes them all on single-handedly and an ironic denouement that probably will not come as that much of a surprise to students of this particular cinematic genre.

Considering the film’s troubled production history, it’s probably not much of a shock to discover that the final film is somewhat uneven. The story is disjointed as the big action beats are connected by long stretches in which nothing much seems to be happening. We also never really get a feel for the characters or the environment in which they live—things are hurried along in a manner that at times makes it feel more like a theme park stunt show than a strong narrative. Some of this may be the result of the constant rewriting of the script, and it was rumored that the film underwent a last-minute re-edit that shortened an epic-length saga into a little over two hours.

Although one hears that a lot regarding misbegotten movies, that does appear to be the truth in this case. When the film played on ABC a couple of years later, approximately 40 minutes of deleted footage was added back in that did indeed flesh out the characters, and gave viewers a much fuller sense of the film’s environment. This so-called “Ulysses cut” is now available on home video, and while it probably will not change the minds of those who dislike the film already, fans should find it fascinating.

The big problem with the movie, I fear, is Costner and his performance as the Mariner. He is clearly trying to go the cynical anti-hero route utilized by Kurt Russell in Escape from New York (1981) and Mel Gibson in the Mad Max movies. While his instincts were clearly correct, he forgets that those performances contained a certain degree of droll humor and self-awareness that he neglects to deploy at all. The result is a relentlessly glum and self-serious performance that inspires little in the way of joy or excitement.

On the other end of the spectrum, Hopper, in one of the crazed villain roles that would define his career in the ’90s, cheerfully chews every available bit of scenery, presumably content in the knowledge that if he could survive the likes of Super Mario Brothers (1993) making it through this would be a piece of cake. Then again, it isn’t as if you should be taking the restrained route when delivering lines like “If you’ll notice the arterial nature of the blood coming from the hole in my head, you can assume that we’re all having a really lousy day.”

And yet, for all of the messiness and unevenness on display, I ultimately enjoyed Waterworld when I first saw it, and have maintained my affection for it over the years. Yes, the film was wildly expensive, but much of that is up there on the screen, in the form of Dennis Gassner’s impressive production design, especially his work on the truly stunning atoll set that one can fully appreciate in the Ulysses cut. This is all the more impressive when you consider that CGI was in its infancy when the film was being made and as a result, everything on display is real and lends the material a certain weight that is rarely seen into today’s green-screen cinematic universes.

The big action scenes in Waterworld are legitimately spectacular as well. Reynolds is able to present massive battles in a clean and efficient manner that eschews close-ups and quick edits in order to let viewers see everything play out for themselves. And while I suppose that spending nearly $200 million on a movie might not be considered the most ecologically sound thing to do, the film delivers an unequivocal eco-friendly message that was ahead of its time, and which continues to resonate strongly today.

Considering all the bad press that it received, there was probably no way that Waterworld was ever going to get anything remotely resembling its due when it came out. Even the conceit that the film was a flop is contradicted by the fact that it did eventually make a profit thanks to the international box office. Happily, the film’s reputation has grown considerably in recent years among viewers who are able to look at it fresh and embrace the genuine cinematic pleasures that it does have to offer.

Whether one looks at it as a powerful big-screen eco-message, one of the last big hurrahs of the pre-CGI era, or as one of the oddest films ever to be made on a budget rivaling the GDP of a small country, Waterworld is a film that continues to dazzle, amaze and perplex viewers in equal measure. For all of its flaws, I would gladly take its super-expensive weirdness over the bland sameness of the MCU offerings in a heartbeat.

Just don’t ask where the cigarettes come from. 

Waterworld Trailer:

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