The colorful Earth behind the Universal logo at the beginning of Waterworld becomes bluer. Soon, all the land mass is gone. A gravelly voiceover explains that this is a future where the ice caps have melted and the Earth’s surface is covered with water.
As you would expect for a movie filmed at sea, Waterworld ran into lots of production problems that sent it way over budget – one of its key sets actually sank. It already had a reputation for being a bomb before it was finished. The Simpsons made fun of its fiscal troubles, showing Milhouse pump a mound of quarters into a Waterworld arcade game, only to have the game end after his character takes a single step – which leads Milhouse to insert even more quarters.
The movie was so poorly received that it nearly ruined the career of its star, Kevin Costner. Once the respected Oscar-winning director of Dances with Wolves, he became infamous for making pretentious flops.
I bought a DVD of the movie when I worked at Blockbuster years ago – thanks to its poor reputation, it was cheap – and it’s become one of my favorites. I’m convinced that the film’s money problems have caused people to overlook the fact that it’s actually quite good.
The movie gives off strong feelings of loss and loneliness. Entire genres of movies portray the destruction of human civilization, but Waterworld takes it to a new level. Not only has society collapsed, but all evidence of it is gone, and the humans who survive have forgotten it ever existed. They lead a deprived existence, both physically and emotionally. Most of them drift by themselves, always surrounded by the same calm, empty ocean plain.
In one powerful scene, Costner runs into a fellow drifter who’s gone crazy from sailing by himself for so long. The man is dangerously mad, but Costner barters with him because he’s carrying a valuable commodity – paper. When he lays the paper out you see that one of the precious sheets is a magazine cover with the cast of Dynasty on it.
Costner gives a good performance as the misanthropic Mariner, though he hams it up for the camera every once in a while. I’m a sucker for movies where troubled characters redeem themselves, and Costner pulls it off. Dennis Hopper plays the pseudo-religious leader of a belligerent, chain-smoking community that chugs along in an oil tanker. As usual, Hopper gives the character a sort of creepy, angry energy.
Much of Waterworld’s bloated budget went towards its sets, and it shows – they are grandiose, but there’s lots of detail. There’s a peaceful community living on an island of rusty metal that struggles to keep its single craggly tree alive. There’s Dennis Hopper’s tanker, oily and smoky as well as rusty, where the starving masses gather on the deck to catch the cans of Smeat he tosses out and to hear his promises of dry land. There’s Kevin Costner’s modest sailboat, which carries a few precious cultural knickknacks: a tiny wooden model of a piano, a set of crayons, a few decaying issues of National Geographic, and a CD player with a jazz CD inside.
The director probably got an ulcer filming the action sequences for this movie, which involve dozens of boats and jetskis along with the usual stunts and explosions, but they were worth it too. I especially like the scene where Costner invades Dennis Hopper’s boat, which, of course, is destroyed in a fiery explosion before it sinks to the ocean depths. Even seeing that ugly boat and its horrible inhabitants perish gave me a profound sense of loss; it’s just another step towards the inevitable disappearance of humans from a world they weren’t meant to live on.
Waterworld is unmistakably a movie of the 90s, with lots of explosions and chases, a Romantic score, big stars and sets. But that doesn’t mean it’s bad – just look at Jurassic Park, Speed, Heat, Die Hard 3, etc. Costner took this formula too far with The Postman, one of the worst movies I’ve seen. Waterworld, however, is a fun, stimulating movie that deserves a better rep.