Why does everyone want to re-evaluate Waterworld? Are there really members of the motion picture mainstream that feel this overblown bit of lame liquid future shock is actually some manner of misbegotten masterpiece? If it wasn’t for the obvious rips from the entire Mad Max canon, combined with star Kevin Costner’s immense ego, this would be nothing more than a failed featured attraction at some cut rate Florida aquatic theme park. As it lumbers about, eradicating any claims of implied environmentalism with each new piece of preposterous plotting, one gets the distinct impression of something being made up as it went along. And by the end, when evil is vanquished and good given hope, we don’t celebrate the triumph - we just wish everyone had drowned in the first place.
The set-up for this story has the polar ice caps melting, the resulting run-off leaving the entire Earth an H2O-only zone. Over time, humanity has developed into gangs of roaming hordes, each one protecting their own secrets and unnatural superstitions. Into their mix comes the mutant known as The Mariner (Kevin Costner). With gills behind his ears and a skillful ease in the water, he’s instantly targeted by raiders, traders, and other sea-skimming scum. When he arrives at a trading post looking for a bargain, he runs into Helen (Jeanne Tripplehorn) and Enola (Tina Majorino). The older woman looks after the little girl, claiming the elaborate tattoo on her back shows the way to the last bit of mythic “dry land” on the planet. When the Smokers - a villainous bunch led by the despotic Deacon (Dennis Hopper) - discover the child’s whereabouts, they attack. Thus begins an adventure in which the Mariner reluctantly protects the pair from the madman and his minions.
Waterworld falls into the category of a movie that’s more interesting to learn about than actually experience on the screen. The tabloid like tale of cost overages, bad weather, impossible production parameters, exploding arrogance, massive reshoots and constant re-edits is the stuff of legend. It started superstar Costner on his long slide into commercial irrelevance and proved that Kevin Reynolds had no business helming a multimillion dollar action epic (remember Rapa Nui? Thought so). While many still sight the lunacy of using the actual ocean as the backdrop for the film (nowadays, CG would substitute for water cutting significantly the grueling 157 day shoot), it was the clash of personalities that finally undermined this movie. Reynolds, Costner’s longtime friend, walked off the set with nearly two weeks left. It was up to the Oscar-winning actor to guide the film through its final days, turning an already bloated and repetitive work into something even less sensible.
There are aspects of Waterworld that do work, pieces of a puzzle that will probably never, ever come together. Dennis Hopper and the whole Smoker mythos are really interesting, considering that they live on an oil tanker and wage war against the seafarers for violently vague, always unclear reasons. Mr. Crystal Method is so over the top, so wickedly flamboyant that it really doesn’t matter why he’s so amped up and aggressive. There’s also a couple of intriguing sequences that show you where the movie could have gone. The Mariner promises Helen and Enola a meal, and turns himself into a piece of bait to hook a horrific monster fish. Sadly, such oversized threats are never mentioned again - NEVER. Similarly, we get a wonderfully ethereal look at life on the ocean floor, the hero showing off the submerged wreckage of civilization. So much of Waterworld takes place on the surface that when we glimpse this particularly effective material, we wonder why the “Underwaterworld” wasn’t explored as well.
Of course, it doesn’t help matters much that Costner is such a lox here. The Mariner is one of his worst performances, all faux physicality and no subtlety. While Tripplehorn and Majorino are trying to bring some finesse to their interchangeable damsels in distress, our lead just sits back and lets his tan and weak, wispy ponytail do the acting. It’s especially obvious when he’s surrounded by supporting players like Michael Jeter, Kim Coates, and Gerard Murphy. They are bringing the mediocre material to life as Costner constantly undermines the energy. He’s obviously trying for stoic and stubborn. Instead, he simply looks inert. By the time he must take a stand and save little Enola from the Smokers, The Mariner is a joke, not a champion worth cheering. With so much of Waterworld on the brink of utter stupidity and pointlessness, the last thing it needs is a lead that can’t electrify the viewer.
Sadly, the new Blu-ray version of this film proves one thing definitively - prettying up a picture with a near flawless 1080p 1.85:1 reproduction does not increase its entertainment value. While many will complain about the lack of any alternative versions (there are many variations on the “final” cut, including added footage which fleshes out some of the back-story and material viewed in the trailer but not in the actual presentation itself) or true added content, the new home video format does bring the movie back to its theatrical roots. Even the soundtrack is significantly improved thanks to the DTS-HD 5.1 mix. But the lack of extras really stands out. Instead of a warts and all backstage peek, a chance to get the real story of Waterworld out there once and for all, Universal pretends that nothing significant happened during the shoot and gussies up the tech specs for a pristine (albeit pointless) presentation.
While it is true that time, and the obsessive culture of the Internet, has lessened Waterworld‘s “Fishtar” reputation to some extent, this is still one massively flawed film. In fact, it’s hard to see how the concept could really work at all. Because the ocean is so vast, so infinite in its many uncovered mysteries, making it the center of some interesting action scenes and stuntwork masks an obvious fact - the scope of the setting is just too broad to be made believable. What about weather? Hurricanes and typhoons? If there are others like the Mariner, why would they choose to live above the surface? With so much available underwater, why not build something there and stay? Certainly there are logical answers for all these issues, one’s crafted out of necessity and creative limitations. But make no mistake about it - Waterworld is not some sort of forgotten gem. It’s a decent enough experience - but the story of how it was made makes for a far more fascinating entertainment.