There’s always a stigma that clings to a film like a barnacal if it flops and it was especially true in the 90’s. If your big budgeted, much ballyhooed blockbuster tanked at the box office, the stigma would cling to the movie for decades like the fetid stench of rotting kippers, even if the movie itself wasn’t that bad. Take Kevin Costner’s Waterworld, a movie that saw a hellish, water-logged production of sinking sets and ballooning costs hit the headlines before the movie even fucking premiered and when it finally took its theatrical bow, the poison that all that negative publicity tipped into water all but killed it before it even had set sail.
However, after all that fuss, Waterworld actually wasn’t that bad – in fact, it’s actually pretty good with its acts of deluged daring do lodged firmly in an impressively damp dystopia that could simply be described as a moister Mad Max.
Hundreds of years into the future, the melting of the polar ice caps has caused mass flooding of the entire planet, however, mankind – the virulent little microbe that we are – has managed to scratch out a brutal existence while surviving on the surface of a planet sized ocean. Amidst this future of H2O and horrors lives the Mariner, an aquatic lone wolf who lives a nomadic existence on his tricked out trimaran as he trades precious dirt for currency and drinks his own, hydrated pee like a government-fearing shut in.
However, while trading on one of the various floating cities known as Atolls, the Mariner’s solitary existence is disrupted when the suspicious townsfolk discover he’s a mutation who has developed webbed toes and gills behind his ears, but matters get even worse when an army of pirate barbarians known as the Smokers violently stage a raid. It turns out they are seeking a little girl named Enola who is rumoured to have a tattoo on her back that apparently leads to a mythical place called Dryland and in the chaos, both the girl and her Guardians, Helen, find themselves escaping with the Mariner with the jet ski riding maniacs in pursuit led by the destructive Deacon.
Even though the typically selfish Mariner is sort of known for the occasional heroic tendency (especially if it also benefits him), a lifetime of willful isolation on the ocean has led him to be what you’d charitably call “difficult to be around” (aka. a fucking dick) and the fact that he now has two people to haul around while they question his every move and play with his horded items has him seriously considering sell them or worse but as time goes on, he (very) slowly starts to bond with the young Enola and eventually becomes her protector against the continuing attacks by the Smokers. But is Dryland even real and if so, could the Mariner finally be the one to find it?
Now that the tides of discontent have long since subsided, it’s fairly easy to see that Waterworld is something of a rollicking, if somewhat tonally confused, action that has the lofty ideals of fusing post-modern, swashbuckling with a more ecological stance to the usual dystopian dynamics we usually see. It’s a sweet thought (also god knows what all those huge explosions did to the environment) and it’s fairly well thought out if you don’t mind your world building arriving with plentiful head scratching plot holes coming free of charge. For example, if paper is so rare, then where the hell are the smokers getting all their cigarettes. How come some people still speak with 90’s era slang (Dennis Hopper, I’m looking at you) while others speak in an archaic speech, How can Enola remember enough about Dryland to sketch stuff like trees and horses, how come she doesn’t recollect that Dryland actually exists and who the fuck tattoos a baby?
Still, if you can put all that baggage on the back burner and sit through Waterworld’s rather hefty running time, it proves to be a perfectly acceptable Mad Max 2 clone that ups its scale considerably long before Fury Road roared over the horizon. For example, yes the world building may be as rickety as a suit of armour made of Lego, but it’s still impressive to see with every item of clothing and every prop scavenged and fashioned from obsolete everyday items be it a fish skin jacket to all the cool gadgets on the Mariner’s kickass trimaran that sort of makes it the Millennium Falcon of boats. Similarly, the water bound sets (which caused the majority of budget bloat when the fucking things sank) are legitimately astounding with the opening act assault by the maniacal Smokers being a genuine action highlight (the stunt show is still running at Universal Studios all these years later).
However, with Dances With Wolves himself on board, Kevin Costner’s Mariner is something of a mixed bag and ends up being something of an intriguing, dangerous character played by a leading man who literally has little or no edge. Take Mel Gibson’s performace (or even Tom Hardy’s) as Max Rockatanski, a nomadic uber-bastard who looks like he’d bludgeon a nun to death for a cap of gasoline despite latent, heroic tendencies – in comparison, Costner’s petulant Mariner is a brooding man-child who gets shitty when people touch his stuff and while his arc could have richly poignant if played by a more intense actor, in the hands of our Kev he just seems brattish.
Praise be then for Dennis Hopper – at that time deep into his 90’s villain era – who pumps some good, old fashioned bad guy mania into the movie as his scenery chewing Deacon nabs all the best lines. Whether worshiping a photo of “Saint Joe” (actually former skipper of the Exxon Valdez Joseph Hazlewood) or planning to conquer Dryland in order to build a makeshift dystopian golf course, the message of man’s selfish, destructive nature is about as nuanced as piano wire dental floss, but it’s also as entertaining as Hell.
A 90’s blockbuster that had one eye on the growing threat of climate change, Waterworld was something of an anomaly and the balance of those pensive moments interspersed with having it’s hero zip line hundreds of feet across an exploding oil rig (that he set fire too) at times simply doesn’t mix and you can almost feel the tug of war between the star and director Kevin Reynolds (Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves) as the movie rolls and tips from side to side, having the Mariner grittily protect female Jeanne Tripplehorn from seafaring rapists one minute and having perform a ludicrous, Looney Toons-style bungee chord rescue the next.
However, despite that inconsistent tone that seemingly rolls and bobs at the whims of the tide, Waterworld ultimately turns out to be a nifty throwback that probably didn’t deserve to run beach itself like a confused whale at the box office.