Ten Word or Less Review – Still a fun mess. To a point.
Fishtar. Kevin’s Gate. Leonard Part 6 on a Jet Ski. Two of these were the derogatory labels eager journalist threw around in 1995 as Waterworld lumbered through its much derided production. I made up the last one. All of Hollywood tittered with anticipation at the idea of watching the mighty Kevin Costner be crushed under the weight of his out of control ego project, action movie. With a budget ballooning to near record heights, behind the scenes bickering which pitted star against director (Kevin Reynolds) and the public anticipating a train wreck of record proportions, Waterworld ultimately landed with more of an ‘Eh’ than an outright thud. If the Hollywood press had not run so vigorously with things, and the production needlessly spent so much scratch, Waterworld would be nothing more than a vaguely agreeable but disjointed action movie. As it stands, Waterworld was the beginning of the end to the then mostly unsullied career of Costner and a nail in the coffin of big budget, star vanity projects.
Waterworld’s opening scene clues the audience in that something has been over thought. The classic Universal logo appears and in a clever bit of narrative intro, we watch the icecaps melt and subsequently flood the Earth. The whole concept of the picture has been ingeniously explained to us in less than 30 seconds. Only a moron wouldn’t get it. Then movie trailer voice guy Don LeFontain pipes in and tells us the world has flooded. It’s a Hell of a duh moment. Moving on, we jump into the film and are introduced to Costner’s character, The Mariner. Riding the high seas in his badass Batmobile of a boat, Waterworld’s first sequence is perfect setup. While diving under water, Mariner’s boat is boarded by a passerby who steals his precious limes. At the same time a a pack of Smokers, water bound ruffians transplanted directly over from Mad Max, show up to pursue the two boats. Mariner kicks his ship into high gear, gets away from the Smokers and disables the lime thief’s boat in the process. The lime thief gets overrun and killed by the Smokers. Essentially, Mariner let this guy get killed because he took his limes. Waterworld is a rough, harsh and unforgiving place and so is the Mariner.
Waterworld’s first act is a model of proficiency and build up. The Mariner arrives at the atoll, a huge man-made island where a small cluster of humanity eeks out existence. We meet the plucky heroine of the piece, Helen (Jeanne Tripplehorn), and the kid with the map to dry land on her back , Enola, who will quickly become the McGuffin everyone one is chasing. We also discover Costner’s Mariner is an undesired and feared mutation, he has gills and webbed feet, and is quickly locked up and scheduled for recycling, I.E. drowned in a pool of sludge eventually to be used as fertilizer. Things are pretty okay for Waterworld so far, but then riding a wave of lousy screenwriting comes Dennis Hopper. Hopper plays The Deacon, a man with a ragtag, jet ski riding army at his disposal who trolls around the ocean in an oil tanker. He knows there’s a girl with a map which supposedly leads to dry land in the atoll so he rides in like a water bound Apocalypse Now Appreciation Society and commences to blow the atoll to pieces and kill everyone there. As a set piece it’s well put together and uses a lot of ambitious physical effects and stunt work, but as story it’s just dumb. Wouldn’t you be risking killing the girl you so desperately want or someone there who knows how to read her map? The sequence exist because this is a big budget action movie and our enormous, costly set must be blown to bits. Hopper immediately sets a tone of cartoonish villainy, riding high on his fresh success from Speed I don’t think anyone thought to suggest otherwise. Nothing in this sequence is a deal breaker but it sets in motion a straight forward plot that star, director, producers and writers would not just fail to execute, but eventually edit into a fine mush of movie paste.
Waterworld skates along for a while longer without chaffing to badly. Costner’s decision to play his Mariner as an anti-hero is kind of fascinating because his Mariner isn’t just gruff and cranky, he’s a straight up prick. His tenacious relationship with his two stowaways doesn’t endear him to a viewer at all. He throws the little girl overboard for drawing on his boat with crayons, hacks off their hair for damaging his ship and even considers prostituting Helen out to a passing nutcase for a few pieces of paper. He changes his mind but it’s still a dick move all the way. Of course he grows to like these two, and they him, but an audience would be hard pressed to ever take to this asshole. It was brave of Costner to go this unflattering route, but it doesn’t matter because the third act is a disaster.
Everything goes to shit as Waterworld begins it’s final act. After another narrow get away from a blustering Dennis Hopper, Mariner, tired of Helen’s endless nagging about dry land, decides to show it to her. He puts her in a diving bubble and takes her under water to show her the wreckage of mankind. We see a crumbling city, a submarine lodged in the side of a building, a donut shop. This is all fine but it’s the timing that makes no sense. Our heroes have literally just escaped from Hopper and his goons and not more than a minute later we’re stopping to go for a prolonged swim. Of course, as they were checking out humanities ruins Hopper and the boys capture the ship. Another senseless scene takes place involving Hopper’s Deacon not wanting to search Costner’s boat to look for the girl. Why not? It’s a tiny frickin’ boat. How long would it possibly take to search? Two or three minutes? The Mariner escapes underwater with Helen but the Smokers torch his boat and take the girl. When they come back up the boat is floating wreckage. What do they do now that all hope is lost? Screw! That’s right. On a flaming chunk of floating wreckage in the middle of an endless ocean with nowhere to go, they have a shag. Maybe that’s not so dumb. Regardless, Waterworld becomes more haphazard and senseless with each passing scene. The Mariner was going to pimp Helen out for a few pieces of paper but he’s got a whole chest full of National Geographic? Anything resembling cohesion is simply let go. It’s as if all the battles in the editing room wore everyone to the nub and with no end in sight they just threw the last act together to get it over with. This goofy but enjoyable action picture is abandoned and treated like scrap. TV broadcast have shown up with varying amounts of deleted scenes, 20 – 40 minutes worth, which fill in some of the more egregious narrative holes floating around but no official director’s cut has ever been assembled. Waterworld reaches a merciful and disappointing conclusion that we ceased to care about 30 minutes before we got there.
In 1995 there were few movie stars as powerful, or ego driven, as Kevin Costner. Coming off a decade of success paralleled by few in all of movie history, Costner’s decision to throw himself into a movie which is basically Mad Max in a wet suit still stands as one of the more baffling ego projects ever executed. The decision to go with Costner friend Kevin Reynolds as director stuck many like a bad idea from the outset. The two had a rocky time making Robin Hood just a few years before but none the less they tried again, and again Costner looks to have bullied his friend around to everyone’s detriment. But the worst decision of all was to spend $175 million on this movie. That was the central mistake of everything. That dollar amount threw the Hollywood press into a tizzy and sent everyone scrambling for blood and bad press. While the movie looks like it cost a fair share of coin, that amount of money is crazy for what is no more than what aims to be a rollicking, post apocalyptic B-movie. If someone had mounted this production just a few years later no doubt CGI could have shaved millions from the budget and we’d be talking about something else. Though it made enough change to warrant its existence, the dye was cast and the damage done.
More far reaching than all of these particulars, Waterworld was the signal flare to Hollywood that Costner was now on the other side of his career as a leading man. His run of success had hit a road bump the year before when Wyatt Earp had tanked, but everyone gets to fail once. Though he isn’t credited as director on Waterworld he bears the burden of creation for this ballyhooed mishap. No Costner, no Waterworld. He would make things much worse on himself just three years later when in an act of senseless defiance he went back to the post-apocalyptic well one more time, this time officially directing, for The Postman. Though a more complete failure and far more savaged by critics than Waterworld, few recognize this as the place where Costner officially lost his clout. Everyone points to the soggy opus as his falling from grace.
Waterworld will always have a notorious spot in Hollywood history. It stands as a oft learned lesson to studios and actors alike that passion projects in the hands of unchecked creators can nearly ruin everyone involved. Costner did direct one more good movie, Open Range, and he has turned in good performances from time to time over the years, but his slow descent from the top of Mt. Hollywood can all be traced back to this movie. At the height of his power and influence he made a movie about a fishman running from a one-eyed Dennis Hopper giving chase on the Exxon-Valdez. Maybe if someone had said it to him like this he would have thought better of it.