(SPOILERS) The production and budgetary woes of “Kevin’s Gate” will forever overshadow the movie’s content (and while it may have been the most expensive movie ever to that point – adjusted for inflation, it seems only Cleopatra came close – it has since turned a profit). However, should you somehow manage to avoid the distraction of those legendary problems, the real qualitative concerns are sure to come sailing over the cognitive horizon eventually; Waterworld is just so damned derivative. It’s a seafaring Mad Max. Peter Rader, who first came up with the idea in 1986, admitted as much. David Twohy, who later came aboard, also cited Mad Max 2; that kind of rip-off aspect – Jaws birthing Piranha – makes it unsurprising Waterworld was once under consideration by Roger Corman (he couldn’t cost it cheaply enough). Ultimately, there’s never a sufficient sense the movie has managed to become its own thing. Which is a bummer, because it’s frequently quite good fun.
But just look at the roll call of familiar elements. An apocalyptic future where society has broken down. A loner in a souped-up vehicle reluctantly involving himself with needy parties, during which a glimmer of his humanity surfaces before he returns to the wilderness. The bald leader of a gang of anarcho-punks looting and pillaging all in his path. Scarce resources prevailing (water, vegetables, fruit, oil). A semi-feral child forming an attachment to our curt loner. An eccentric fellow intermittently taking to the air and aiding our hero. Even the quest element (a mythical land) can be located in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome.
Costner had flirted with the antihero before (Revenge, A Perfect World), but it was surely foolhardy to beckon blockbuster audiences previously flocking to see him as a stand-up guy – an idealist of sorts, usually up against extreme odds or pressure – in a curt, taciturn role where cynicism is the only language of survival. Indeed, the sheer out-of-control element of Waterworld’s production, when combined with the painful outright belly up of the previous year’s Wyatt Earp and the same response, with additional derision, that greeted the subsequent The Postman, formed a triptych that sunk the star as a major player (it’s worth noting it wasn’t just Costner experiencing a career downturn at this time; his might have been more pronounced, but it was clear the likes of Schwarzenegger, Willis and Stallone no longer summoned their prior wattage as the ’90s drew to a close).
Indeed, there’s a certain pig-headedness to the Mariner’s characterisation that is almost admirable. He’s unblinking about sabotaging the vessel of a fellow drifter who steals his fruit, leaving him to the Smokers (jet-ski-riding pirates). He shows no inclination of kindness towards map-tattooed girl Enola (Tina Majorino) and her guardian Helen (Jeanne Tripplehorn). Indeed, he repeatedly yells at the them, threatens them and force-cuts their hair. At one point, he even contemplates pimping them out to Kim Coates’ looney-tunes drifter (Mariner agrees a deal for Helen before having second thoughts).
While a degree of thawing is necessary for this loner-hero archetype – basically per Clint Eastwood’s western antihero – Costner ultimately second guesses himself a little too much, straying too far into the valley of emotional connection (asked by Dennis Hopper’s Deacon what Enola is to him, he replies “My friend”). He and director Kevin Reynolds have the essential iconography down (although, I recall there being concern at the time over how much to emphasise his mutations, gills etc. – see below – and giving him the name Ulysses in the Extended – or Ulysses – Cut is a wee bit too much mythologising). The problem is, Costner goes too far in revealing Mariner’s inner moral compass. When Enola starts talking him up to Deacon’s men, spinning a mythic figure, it’s intended to suggest the Feral Kid’s voiceover in The Road Warrior, but for that to work he needs to remain in the shadows emotionally.
And needs a director who can spin that. Reynolds is a dependable journeyman, one who can come up with a decent shot or two, but there’s no distinctive flair involved. But it was the right move to have Mariner head out on his own at the end, knowing Dryland is not for him (I’m not sure amending this to bringing others of his kind back to land – apparently the slopes of Mount Everest, rather than Hawaii – is as effective, per the Ulysses Cut).
The supporting players tend to tread similar boards to their lead, too well worn to have much spring in them. Dennis Hopper’s second career wind had begun with Blue Velvet in 1986, and his signature villainy also cropped up in Red Rock West, Super Mario Bros. and most significantly the previous year’s Speed. Essentially, he could boast a patented brand of blockbuster rent-a-villain by the time he took the Waterworld gig, one given to variable quips, shouting and mugging. Which means he’s fine. But, to an even greater extent than Alan Rickman turning his Die Hard performance up to eleven to broader but less pleasing effect in the two Kevins’ previous Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, we’ve seen this all before.
If Hopper’s familiar but serviceable, Tripplehorn is the wrong kind of irritating, such that, aside from her stunt butt, we can never see why Mariner would warm to her. She appears to be modelled on Willie Scott in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, rather than Marion Ravenscroft in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Which means she’s yelling, berating, putting her foot in it (the harpoon/plane sequence is admittedly bravura, even if it’s another point where you can tell a real craftsman would have made it an outright showstopper). As for the brat, it’s the old “too much” problem. One of Mariner’s lines about sums her up: “… you’re too loud and you move around all the time. Try sitting still”.
This template – grizzled guy given a surrogate family – is hit-and-miss even with all the right creative elements in place. There’s never enough chemistry or character development in Waterworld for the bonds to grow effectively. And besides, as I’ve suggested, it’s doubtful they should have attempted to move in that direction anyway. You can also see Michael Jeter plying his patented oddball (as airship pilot Old Gregor), Jack Black as the Smoker pilot, and Gerard Murphy delivering some sold hissable value as henchman the Nord.
Emphasising the influences, Mad Max 2’s Den Semler was employed as cinematographer, although the colour palettes are obviously rather different. James Newton Howard furnished one of his less commendable scores after Costner nixed Mark Isham’s “too ethnic and bleak” compositions. He’s asked to whistle up a hero theme and it’s frankly lousy, the sort of tonally incompetent “adventure” cues that might suit The Goonies or Hook, but are a major miscalculation here.
The effects are a mixed bag, with the green screen often obvious and the CGI even more so. We’re told the melting of the ice caps has triggered evolution both small (Costner’s Icthyus sapien) and large (big, bad CGI fish monsters). Mariner’s gills were the source of some concern during production – “‘The damned things look like little vaginas!’ a Universal exec was quoted as saying” – and it’s a conceit that never quite convinces. There were also rumours of work on Costner’s Digital hairline, which he denied (to be honest, given that ragtag ponytail look, I can believe him. Besides, Newsweek was probably recycling an old Hudson Hawk story).
The biggest problem Reynolds contended with, besides falling out with on-gain-off-again buddy Costner for the second successive time they collaborated as director and star, was the fairly insurmountable one of all sea-based fare. Apart the logistics of shooting on it, ocean action is intrinsically slow. Such projects have scuppered better directors than Reynolds, and it says something that Waterworld at least made money when that decade alone – 1492: Conquest of Paradise, Cutthroat Island, White Squall, Speed 2: Cruise Control – is awash with wrecks. It took something really unlikely on paper – Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl – to change the tide (and when they try to reboot it without persona non grata Johnny Depp, they’ll inevitably come to realise the same thing everyone else knew; they had lightning in a bottle). Much of Waterworld’s first half coasts along pretty smoothly, though, utilising the Mad Max 2 template to bring Mariner to a settlement that falls prey to real bad guys. Thoroughly nasty ones. It’s when, following a detour to some iffily rendered underwater ruins, he goes to confront Deacon and rescues Enola that the movie becomes routine.
Essentially, the dystopian scenario has two options; control or chaos. The more popular cinematic versions tend to pick chaos, but as we can currently see, the more likely reality is control. Visions of chaos are often intrinsically linked to issues of resources and planetary welfare, and Waterworld’s take is at times overtly so. This one is thus surely a Greta favourite, in which eco-Costner warns of a future besieged by melted polar ice caps, with no discernible land (representing artistic licence of Grunberg-esque proportions). Albeit, Reynolds was apparently the force behind the enviro-messaging (perhaps unsurprising, following Rapa Nui), complete with the incredibly clumsy, borderline risible use of the Exxon Valdez as the villains’ base inclusive of its captain’s portrait. As we now know, though, it won’t still be around in 2500.
For all its debt to the hackneyed, Waterworld can boast an interesting subtext about perception, though; in the face of an Earth of unknown geography, Mariner maintains “You’re a fool to believe in something you’ve never seen before”. Yet this is precisely what we do: believe verbatim what we are sold second-hand about our realm, it’s shape, dimensions, geography and properties, passed on as it is authoritatively by those who know better (despite the one-eye poster design, and monocular Hopper, there's little sign of masonic influences dictating terms here). “Dryland’s a myth” could as well be “There’s no Antarctic ice wall”.
Peter Rader hasn’t seen much of a writing career since, while David Twohy went on to hone his loner antihero to true cult appeal in Riddick. Joss Whedon came on board for some script doctoring that proved to be “seven weeks of hell” (he then changed weeks to years and used it as working model for the cast and crew of Buffy). To be fair, Whedon’s critique of the picture’s problems is entirely cogent. However, I’ll always maintain Alien Resurrection is much more enjoyable than he’s willing to admit.
Costner’s original Aqua-man is far from a bad movie, but it is a messy one. The problems of an uncertain script and an insufficiently assured director make for patchily entertaining spectacle that doesn’t know how much of a rough edge it really wants to sport. So it leans into its star’s more favoured, cosy myth. As apocalypses go, Waterworld is one of the more upbeat.