Waterworld (1995) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

When Waterworld came out in 1995, it was reviled as a bomb, and it became the subject of ongoing comic barbs, ala Gigli. Kevin Coster's production was troubled from beginning to end. Many expensive sets had to be rebuilt after they were destroyed by Pacific typhoons. The film came in late and millions over budget (before Titanic, it was the most expensive film ever made). Costner fired the director before the film was finished, and Costner's wife, in turn, fired him. The finances seemed so bloated and so wildly out of control that pundits searched for the correct historical references to famous financial flops. Was it "Fishtar" or "Kevin's Gate"?

Now that a decade or so has passed, the emotion of the moment has passed and it's hard to see what all the fuss was about.

1. Waterworld wasn't as big a financial disaster as people were led to believe. It did cost an outlandish $175 million, but it grossed a respectable $88 million in the USA, and an impressive $167 million overseas. It has also produced more than $40 million in rental income over the years, so it has probably come pretty close to breaking even, given broadcast rights and retail sales.

2. Waterworld wasn't such a bad movie. This is no Gigli. The Metacritic score is 55, and there is only one score below 50. It features some great scenes, some imaginative sets, and some athletic stunts. There are times when it showed that there could have been a great movie formed from the basic clay of Waterworld, if only the script had been as solid as the concept.

The basic premise of the film is to imagine how life would go on after the earth has been flooded by an environmental disaster. The polar ice caps are gone, and the remnants of civilization roam the eternal oceans. As far as the characters know, there are three types of people left in the world: (1) nomadic loners in small wind-borne ships (2) people who have banded together in rag-tag floating versions of walled castles, and (3) some outlaw types ("the smokers") who live on the notorious Exxon Valdez, the oil tanker whose inept navigation into a reef once polluted some 1300 miles of Alaskan shoreline. The outlaws still have access to motorized boats, weapons, and fuel oil.

The humans from all three groups debate about "Dryland", the last continent. Handed down as a legend from generation to generation, Dryland may exist, or it may be a myth, but it represents hope to humans good and bad.

Let's get the Waterworld negatives out of the way first:

  • Kevin Costner, as The Mariner, chose to portray his loner as the ultimate outsider. Taciturn and pragmatic, he is aloof from human contact. He will neither lead nor follow, nor will he walk beside any other humans. In fact, despite outward appearances, he is not really human at all. Gills allow him to breathe underwater, and his feet are webbed. By creating this character with no humor and little emotional response, Costner gave himself an achievable acting task, but failed to mine the potential emotional depths of the character. With neither the soulful self-doubt of Harrison Ford in Blade Runner, nor the edge-of-insanity humor of Mel Gibson in Mad Max, Costner managed to bring only an impenetrable blandness to his characterization, thus sanding away all the possibilities for interesting peculiarities of personality, as if Richard Gere were playing the lead in a Richard Harris biopic. The imperturbable even keel of a regular guy has worked for Costner in the past, especially in his jock movies where emotional control under stress fits in with our picture of the perfect athlete. The same characterization really didn't make any sense here. As with Costner's Robin Hood, a bit of charisma could have gone a long way toward making this movie more involving.

  • To say that this movie is heavily indebted to The Road Warrior is to dramatically understate the similarity of the two films.

  • The movie couldn't decide whether the bad guys were genuinely menacing or comical buffoons. Of course, the smokers are supposed to show us that even the ultimate cataclysm could not expunge the human personality traits that caused the disaster which destroyed the world to begin with. They continue to pollute and waste resources as did pre-apocalyptic man. Their purpose in the storyline made it difficult to resist exaggerating them to the point where they are completely one-dimensional villains who exist purely as symbols of evil. In creating that exaggeration, the script pushed them to the brink of camp, like the baddies on the TV version of Batman. The scenes with Dennis Hopper's character, the Mariner's primary antagonist, ranged confusingly from Satanic to Wily Coyotic in tone. When watching the smokers, one wonders whether the audience should take it all seriously, or treat it as a comedy. One must admit, however, that some of the concepts are pretty funny. The Exxon Valdez still has a picture of the notorious Captain Joseph Hazlewood on the bridge, and centuries of oral tradition have elevated the picture to the status of a religious icon. Hopper refers to Hazlewood as Saint Joe.

  • The romantic sub-plot between Costner and Jeanne Tripplehorn was a complete dud. Those two had nothin'.

Acknowledging those liabilities doesn't keep me from having enjoyed a lot of things about Waterworld:

  • The film did a lot of interesting thinking about which things might have tremendous value in a saltwater future - citrus plants and water purification systems, for example - and how those objects might be used and bartered. When we first see The Mariner, he pees into a contraption which recycles his urine into drinking water. He swallows some, cleans his teeth with some, then spits the gargled water on his plants to water them in turn.
  • In one richly imagined scene, Costner takes a human woman on a trip through an underwater remnant of what was once a great 20th century city.
  • The film has some elaborate sets based on a conceptualization of how civilization might be rebuilt from scratch without land. In a sense "the atoll" looks and functions very similarly to the castles of medieval Europe.
  • I know the word is overused, but there is only one word for the work of the stuntmen on this film - "awesome". These guys did some of the best water skiing and jet-ski stunts imaginable. Costner himself was impressively athletic in the many underwater scenes which he did without a double, and in the way he was able to move both vertically and horizontally around his custom-designed sailboat (also give lots of props to the guy who imagined the contraptions that conveyed Costner from place to place).

I suppose that Universal Studios felt that this film was too generally reviled to merit a deluxe special edition DVD, so the disc is essentially featureless. That is a great shame for many reasons.

(1) Nothing makes for a better Hollywood tale than a bloated epic filled with cost overruns, natural disasters, and divorces. The Waterworld production story is eerily parallel to the story behind Cleopatra, and the Cleopatra DVD is one of the most interesting ever issued, despite the mediocre caliber of the film itself.


In the widescreen version on the DVD, the only nudity is a full rear body shot from Jeanne Tripplehorn's body double.

In the full screen VHS version, there are several frames in which Tripplehorn could not keep her lower body completely covered by a sail while she was holding a spear gun on Costner. Her pubic area seems to be exposed, although that conclusion is by no means certain. (It may be a thong)

DVD info from Amazon

  • no features

  • Good, widescreen anamorphic transfer

(2) It has been widely reported that the final cut of Waterworld represented only a middling percentage of the scenes that were shot. Whether the editing decisions were justified or not, I would love to see what they had to work with, and to hear how they decided on the final product. If ever there was a case where a detailed DVD could bring added value to a film, this is it. Perhaps there is not enough interest in the film to justify such an effort, but if they ever do it, I promise to buy a copy, and to sell as many other copies as I can.

The Critics Vote ...

  • Super-panel consensus: two and a half stars. Ebert 2.5/4, Berardinelli 3/4.

  • Rotten Tomatoes summary. The great unwashed group of critics split 38% positive, 62% negative, but the reviews from the "cream of the crop" critics were 71% positive.

The People Vote ...

  • IMDB summary. IMDb voters score it 5.3/10. Yahoo voters call it a C.
  • It grossed $255 million worldwide ($88 million USA). The production costs finally came in around $175 million, which was far more than originally intended.

Miscellaneous ...

The meaning of the IMDb score: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence equivalent to about three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, comparable to approximately two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, equivalent to about a two star rating from the critics, or a C- from our system. Films rated below five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film - this score is roughly equivalent to one and a half stars from the critics or a D on our scale. (Possibly even less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. (C+ means it has no crossover appeal, but will be considered excellent by genre fans, while C- indicates that it we found it to be a poor movie although genre addicts find it watchable). D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well. Any film rated C- or better is recommended for fans of that type of film. Any film rated B- or better is recommended for just about anyone. We don't score films below C- that often, because we like movies and we think that most of them have at least a solid niche audience. Now that you know that, you should have serious reservations about any movie below C-.

Based on this description, this is a C. Pretty cool futuristic adventure movie. Some scenes drag, the film couldn't decide whether it was kidding or not, and Costner has no personality, but the best scenes are filled with great stunts and richly-imagined concepts.

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