Waterworld (1996) Movie Review

1995’s Waterworld is the ultimate “troubled project.” When James Cameron’s Titanic was in production, the name Waterworld kept coming up over and over. The insinuation was that the big studios that had greenlit Cameron’s opus was in trouble on the grand scale of Waterworld. Besides the fact that both movies involved water, you had a creator (Cameron in Titanic’s case, and Kevin Costner in the case of Waterworld) known for their ego and having (and always getting) things their way come hell or high water (no pun intended). As we all now know, Cameron’s movie went on to become the biggest blockbuster in all of human history.

Costner’s Waterworld, on the other hand, wasn’t so lucky. The film was a commercial and critical flop, and ever since then Costner has lost all shine and prominence that used to accompany any film with his name attached. Is the infamy of Waterworld deserved? Well, let’s see…

The film stars Kevin Costner as a mysterious drifter with no name (called in the film as the Mariner), who wanders a post-apocalyptic landscape that is completely submerged in water. Years ago (the film doesn’t specify a time frame) the polar ice caps melted, covering most of the world in water. “Most” because the survivors believe there is a piece of dry land still out there somewhere, but no one knows where it is except maybe a young girl name Enola (Tina Majorino), who has a strange tattoo on her back and no one knows where she came from. Enola is being cared for by Helen (Jeanne Tripplehorn), who along with an old inventor (Michael Jeter) believes the tattoo on Enola’s back is the key to dry land. Also out to get Enola and the secret she holds is a group of marauders called Smokers, led by the maniacal Deacon (Dennis Hopper).

Waterworld is a post-apocalyptic film (from now on referred to as PAP for laziness’s sake), a genre that was popular and commercially successful during the ’80s, at a time when everyone was positing nuclear war between the U.S. and the Russians. Once the Cold War became history, PAP films have lost a lot of popularity, and hence not a lot of film in the genre has been made since. As far as I can recall, Waterworld was the first big budget PAP in a long, long time, and its concept (a world submerged in water) is a doozy.

The film had a lot of problems to begin with, not the least of which were the logistical nightmare of shooting an entire movie on, under, and above real water. In the case of Waterworld, much of the film (perhaps 90% of its running length) is shot on a moving ocean using real-sized models and sets with very little blue screen or cgi. The problem of course was trying to make Mother Nature conform to a shooting schedule. The movie was delayed by storms, and the “water city” set had to be rebuilt twice, costing both time and money. Cameron took the lessons of Waterworld and overcame the problem of Mother Nature by shooting the entire ocean sequences on a soundstage and used cgi models extensively.

As to the film’s merits — it’s not as bad as everyone claims. It’s actually a very good adventure film, with creative stunts and action sequences. The water city and the tanker are giant sets and the action that revolved around them were both spectacularly done. The appearance and assault by the Smokers against the water city was a sight to see. The Mariner’s boat is ingenious, with its many parts and highly inspired rigging. The look and feel of the Smokers, with their air-compressed weapons and heavily modified boats, planes, and jet skis were also very well done. Although the jet skis did get a little ridiculous after a while. There is such a thing as being too choreographed, and every time the Smokers appeared on their jet skis the film looked like a show at Universal Studios.

Kevin Costner got a bad rap from this film. His Mariner, a man born on the ocean and has been traveling it for so long that he has gills and webbed feet, was appropriately tough and laconic. The Mariner is a mutation of the human species (but he’s the next sensible evolution of mankind) and his “freak” qualities allow him to swim faster and breathe underwater — both desirable traits when your world is covered by water. Unfortunately the Mariner’s assets also make him a target of the still-unchanged humans who live in the water cities. They shun him, abuse him, and as a result he’s hardened and dangerous among them, for the simple reason that he has to be in order to survive their hatred and suspicion.

Much of the movie’s funny and intense moments come when Jeanne Tripplehorn’s Helen and Enola winds up on the Mariner’s boat. The Mariner’s attitude toward them is rough and unflinchingly unsympathetic at first, but very justified. The Mariner sees humans as an enemy on the basis that they see him as an enemy. His attitude toward Helen and Enola (despite being women and weak) is still understandable, and Enola’s smart-aleck attitude really shines through because the Mariner is so annoyed by her constant talking. Many critics have pointed to this section of the movie as a weakness, but I don’t agree. I liked that Helen didn’t fall for the Mariner immediately, and actually despises and is suspicious of him and vice versa. Their mutual revulsion towards each other is justified and creditable, as well as the Mariner’s eventual warming toward both of them.

In my opinion, Waterworld doesn’t deserve the infamy that has been associated with it. Despite the fact that so many people had a hand in the film, from the writers to the directors, even to the three cinematographers (count them, three!), the film is very coherent. The action is thrilling, the “world” of the Mariner’s boat is inspired, and even the silly performance of the always-hyper Dennis Hopper was fun to watch. Waterworld is a good, but not great film, so don’t believe the hype.

Kevin Reynolds (director) / Peter Rader, David N. Twohy (screenplay)
CAST: Kevin Costner …. Mariner
R.D. Call …. Enforcer
Jeanne Tripplehorn …. Helen
Lanny Flaherty …. Trader
Dennis Hopper …. Deacon
Tina Majorino …. Enola

Buy Waterworld on DVD