Friday, August 10, 2012

Cult Movie Review: Waterworld (1995)

Sometimes, mainstream film critics focus too much on the inside-baseball aspects of filmmaking for my taste. 

I suppose that everyone enjoys behind-the-scenes stories of disagreements between lead actors and directors, and tales of woe concerning films that run massively and catastrophically over-budget.  

It’s impossible to take your eyes off a train wreck, in other words.

And yet the problem with this focus on inside-baseball emerges when the same critics draw an explicit connection between behind-the-scenes strife and the artistic merits of a finished work-of-art.  In other words, some reviewers utilize the inside-baseball knowledge to fit into a specific, pre-drawn narrative. 

Using the former factors (behind-the-scenes strife), to judge the latter (artistic merit), is problematic, I submit, because the relationship clearly isn’t one-to-one.  A difficult shoot doesn’t necessarily result in a bad film.  Going over budget doesn’t necessarily mean artistic disaster, either.  And the opposite is also true: a smooth shoot doesn’t indicate that a film is going to turn out terrific.

Certainly, this unfortunate critical paradigm was exposed with both King Kong (1976) and John Carter (2012), both of which were received harshly by the critical community largely on the basis of behind-the-scenes, inside-baseball factors rather than a judicious consideration of artistic factors.

This fallacy is also true of Waterworld (1995), a film that, upon release, was clearly marked in the press as a troubled production, and furthermore, the most expensive film of all-time. 

Yet seventeen years later, I don’t know that our knowledge of those facts is vital to a fair assessment of the film’s particular strengths and weaknesses.

Eschewing the inside-baseball stats and figures, Waterworld plays as a straight-up and not un-enjoyable transplant of The Road Warrior (1982) aesthetic, only in a world destroyed by global warming rather than by nuclear war. 

Kevin Costner’s gilled, mutant Mariner, in other words, is a wet Mad Max who, like his predecessor, is something of a variation on Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name, a classic movie character featured in A Fistful of Dollars (1964), For a Few Dollars More (1965), and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966). 

In short, this archetype involves a “stranger” who rides into town and becomes involved in a conflict not his own, and who, largely, is rather stoic, allowing actions speak louder than words.  Similarly, Waterworld’s Mariner is frequently tagged as a silent brooder, and by film’s end has even become equated with “Death” Himself for his accomplished – if taciturn -- application of lethal force.

From this...

To this...

To this.

Beyond the obvious inspiration the film draws from the Mad Max mythos, Waterworld succeeds mostly because of the “reality” of the world it assiduously constructs. The film is one of the last sci-fi epics to emerge from the pre-digital age of Hollywood blockbusters and, accordingly -- and for all its apparent flaws -- boasts this heightened sense of texture or verisimilitude. 

Everything (or most everything…) our eyes witness had to be arduously constructed and set afloat, and that herculean effort pays off in a visual and imaginative sense.  You can practically smell the salt water and the burning fuel…

In terms of negatives, Waterworld takes an unnecessary dive into sentimentalism, a wrong turn that The Road Warrior never falls prey to, though Beyond Thunderdome certainly did. 

The film’s final act also consists of one generic action movie trope after the other, from the hero’s ability to outpace blossoming fireballs, to last minute, physically impossible rescues.  These almost cartoon-like moments tend to mark Waterworld as a product of eager-to-please Hollywood, and make it rather decidedly unlike its spare, gritty, Australian source of inspiration.

Still, some of the overt sentimentalism and action clichés in Waterworld might be overlooked because of the film’s absolutely original setting, and the skill with which that setting is presented.  The film’s lead characters -- when not grinding the gears of expected generic conventions -- are interesting enough to spend two hours with, certainly.  In keeping with the tradition of the post-apocalyptic genre, Waterworld also makes an earnest statement about man’s self-destructive nature.

“Dry land is not just our destination, it is our destiny!”

In a world of the future -- a world of ubiquitous oceans -- the silent, rugged Mariner (Costner) seeks to re-supply at a nearby atoll.  Unfortunately, he is arrested by the local Elders as a “muto” (or mutant) because he has webbed feet and gills behind his ears. 

The Mariner’s arrest comes at a bad time, because the leader of the eco-unfriendly Smokers, The Deacon (Dennis Hopper) is planning to launch an attack there and grab young Enola (Tina Majorino), a girl with an indecipherable map to the mythical “Dry Land” tattooed on her back. 

Enola and her stepmother, Helen (Jean Tripplehorn) free the Mariner from captivity in exchange for passage out of the atoll on his boat.  They barely escape with their lives, and the Deacon commits to pursuing them.

On the high seas, the Mariner and his “guests” have difficulty getting along at first, but soon he becomes fond of the women, and they of him.  One day, the Mariner takes Helen to the bottom of the sea and shows him man’s drowned cities there.  That lost world is the only (formerly) “dry land” he knows of, he insists.

When the Deacon captures Enola, it’s up to the Mariner to rescue her, and more than that, to lead other rag-tag survivors to “Dry Land.”  Enola’s map, properly understood, holds the key to man’s future…

“He doesn't have a name so Death can't find him!

The quality I admire most about Waterworld is its physicality.

That may not be the best word, but it gets the job done in a pinch.  I could also describe this ingredient as “texture” or “atmosphere,” perhaps, but physicality better gets at the film’s rugged and powerful sense of setting, of place.  I love the Rube-Goldberg-style devices, the trinkets from the “old world” re-purposed for Waterworld’s tech, and the sheer mechanical nature of the world.  It’s a place of whirring hydraulics, tugging pulleys, fold-out sails, and endless, ubiquitous sea.  As a whole, I find it all rather compelling and even believable. 

As I noted above, most of this setting, at least in terms of the human dwellings and conveyances, had to be constructed and then set afloat.  I like the tactility and verisimilitude of this world, and realize that if the film were made today, it would be a different beast all-together, one “rendered” with digital landscapes and CGI.  

In other words, it would likely seem a whole lot less real.  But some of the little, almost throwaway touches in the film are really quite spectacular, and contribute to the idea that "Waterworld" is a real place, and one boasting a deep and long history.

A world that you can touch.

A world that had to be built.

A world that works.

And a world that speaks of another time.
In terms of the post-apocalyptic sub-genre, Waterworld  escorts the audience on an ominous trip to the bottom of the sea, and provides a haunting view of an old metropolis turned to dust at the ocean floor, a clear analog for the Statue of Liberty moment in Planet of the Apes (1968) or the “empty cities” of The World, The Flesh and The Devil (1959) or Night of The Comet (1984).  But that’s as close to conventional end-of-the-world imagery as Waterworld gets, instead setting its action on an unending, dangerous, but eminently beautiful sea.  I have always been impressed by the visual qualities of the ocean, a realm that is both beautiful and incredible dangerous.  And the ocean, as we detect in the film, also does a good job of burying secrets…

In terms of its narrative, it’s plain that Waterworld owes a great deal to The Road Warrior, and indeed, the entire Mad Max cycle.  The Mariner, like Max, is a man who lives outside of human society and who boasts some disdain for it. 

Both characters live as scavengers and traders, contacting civilization only to re-supply.  Both the Mariner and Max form meaningful relationships or friendships with children (Enola, and the Feral Kid, respectively), and both eventually come around to the idea of “helping” an endangered civilization find a new home (either Dry Land, or the gasoline truck’s promised land destination in The Road Warrior).

Finally, both sagas end with that new home established, but the warrior himself returning to the “wasteland” arena to continue his lonely travels.  Mad Max and the Mariner are violent men with a code of ethics, and so they both realize it is better for them to remain “outcasts” in the wild rather than to seek domesticated lives inside a new culture. In Beyond Thunderdome, the new city-dwellers light candles for the wanderers who haven’t come home; in Waterworld, Enola and Helen watch as the Mariner returns to the sea, the realm that nurtured him.   

In both The Road Warrior and Waterworld, a central scenario depicted is the “siege” of a pre-existing civilization.  Outsiders on a variety of crafts try to “break in” and pillage either Oil City or the Atoll.  The beleaguered city, naturally, fights back, but the walls are breached by attacking vehicles, either flying motorcycles or launched jet skis.  Both cities eventually fall, leading to a dedicated trek to new home. 

These factors -- the siege and the trek – make the films origin stories of a mythic type.  As Aeneas had to flee fallen Troy to found Rome, so do Max and the Mariner lead homeless survivors to greener pastures…literally in the case of Waterworld.

In one moment in Waterworld, we even get a deliberate mirror image composition of a famous frame from The Road Warrior.  There, in the first harrowing action scene, we saw the savage Wez perched on his motorcycle, another goon seated behind him on the bike, looking at his prey.  We see very much the same framing in view here (also in the first action scene), except, of course, on a water craft instead of a motorcycle.

Despite the obvious aping of the Mad Max universe, Waterworld’s unique, water-bound setting gives it a lot of “juice,” at least visually speaking.  The images are so lush and convincing you can make yourself forget, essentially, that the movie is a pastiche.

A city shall fall.

And so will this one.

And a child shall lead the people to a better future.

And so will this one.

The bad guys watch.

And so do these bad guys.

As we have come to expect from post-apocalyptic films, there is an environmental message in Waterworld that suggests man’s self-destructive nature.  The “Ancients” caused rapid global warming, and now, similarly, the Smokers are running through the last of their oil, trying to sustain an unsustainable lifestyle. 

Their need to live that life-style of relative leisure (replete with cigarettes, electricity,and even cars…) dooms the Smokers to a life of war and conflict, stealing what they need from other nation-states/atolls at the barrel of a gun.  The fact that the Smokers inhabit the Exxon Valdez, a poster-child for environmental irresponsibility, pretty much says it all.  And this too is America's fate, if we don't tap alternative energy sources.  We'll have to fight resource wars to maintain our culture's high standard of living.

Even the film’s villain plays into this leitmotif.  At one point, the Deacon attempts to flick a lit cigarette into an open oil tank, an act which could have instantaneous, catastrophic results were he successful.  The message is clearly that he is self-destructive, but there’s more.  By wantonly, thoughtlessly using up the Earth’s resources, we’re essentially lighting a spark that could destroy everything we hold dear too. 

We outgrew it,” one Smoker says of the Exxon-Valdez, and indeed that’s precisely fear of many environmentalists.  What happens when we outgrow the planet’s capacity to sustain us?

This environment message is leavened some by the film’s many action sequences, which grow progressively less satisfying and less convincing as the film continues.  The opening battles on the sea and at the atoll are genuinely awe inspiring, and feature death-defying stunts.  By the end of the film, however, rear-projection and cartoony explosions dominate the proceedings and some element of reality is sacrificed.

So much of the popular press still terms Waterworld a bomb (though it eventually made back its budget and more), but this is hardly a terrible science fiction film. Waterworld may not be a truly great science fiction film, but nor is it the epitome of Hollywood disaster, as many still make it out to be. 

Waterworld’s biggest problem, I submit, is that the film’s first half elaborately sets up a world and characters of tremendous interest, and then the last half spends all its time blowing things up, and resolving all the conflicts with fireballs and explosions.  In other words, it’s lot like many other examples of mainstream 1990s filmmaking.  And yet, the film doesn't open that way at all.  In fact, Waterworld's opening is a kind of brilliant "screw-you" to conventional  standards and decorum.  How many Hollywood blockbusters can you name that open with a shot of an established star, like Costner, pissing into a cup, refining his urine, and then drinking it?

And in terms of last shots, Waterworld finishes strong. The Mariner heads off to the next horizon and the next mystery.  Perhaps it’s the mystery of his very creation, or the mystery of the end of the world.  It’s kind of a shame we never got to see that second adventure. 

After all, Mad Max and The Man with No Man each got three attempts to get the equation right…


  1. Anonymous3:03 PM

    John excellent review of Waterworld(1995). The ‘Mad Max Beyond Waterworld’ analysis is perfect. As you stated, Waterworld was built to fail in the public’s eye because the entertainment journalists began savaging it long before the public would see it in theaters. It felt like what is going on now in the dirty politics of a presidential campaign. The entertainment journalists seemingly wanted to see Kevin Costner fail big after the successful of Dances With Wolves(1990). You are absolutely correct that Waterworld should have been a trilogy. Maybe there will be a Waterworld remake one day.


    1. Hi SGB,

      The story of Waterworld was always, in the press, about how damn expensive the thing was. I agree with your conclusion that entertainment journalists and critics wanted to see Kevin Costner fail after Dances with Wolves. It's crazy, but Hollywood loves to build people up, and then tear them down. They've done it with Costner, and they've done it with Ben Affleck. I just don't get it.

      I'm sure that, one day, Waterworld will indeed get a remake. It will be interesting to see how the story is visualized, given the advancement in special effects.

      Great comment!


  2. I had been following the news reports of Waterworld for months before it was released, so I too had a hard time divorcing my thoughts from the media hype and focus on the film itself. I think your review sums it up fairly succinctly. When I first saw it, I too wondered, "Why didn't they just use CGI to create most of this and save money?" I guess the technology was not quite there yet. In retrospect, its lack of CGI is its most redeeming feature. We'll never see a fantasy movie so realistically rendered ever again. In the end, though, it was still just a Hollywood actioner that never fully exploited the world they created.

    1. Hi Neal,

      I totally get your perspective. When you are inundated with stories about strife and budget and all that stuff, it's hard to actually just focus on what the film is trying to say. Another problem is that this inside-baseball apparently affects critics and their perceptions too, which is really, really bad, in terms of crafting an honest dialogue about a work of art.

      I agree with you that the physicality (and lack of CGI) is Waterworld's most redeeming feature, and the thing, I suggest, that brings audiences back to it. The film has a visual authenticity that is very strong, particularly in the first half. The film does devolve, just as you say, into an actioner by the end, which I find disappointing.

      Excellent thoughts!


  3. I recently reviewed this one as well, and gave it a good score for the same reasons you did, I think it has it's merits also, it's one of the most expensive post apocalyptic movies ever made, thats something right there!

    1. TFC:

      Great minds think alike! :)

      Waterworld is ultra expensive, but at least in this case, you can see where the money went, in terms of props, locations, vehicles, etc. The film looks really terrific, with only the (bad) rear projection moments dating it. I agree with you as well that the film boasts some merits.

      All my best,

  4. Another great review. I agree with you. The hype killed this one, and it's a shame really. It is really a solid action flick with some great ideas inside it. I would have liked a bit less action and a bit more delving into the world. It feels like they wanted to cover all their bases and ended up diluting the entire film. But it's still a fun entertaining film. And it is a bit more optimistic than our current crop of down and dower blockbusters. So I always appreciate that.

    In a lot of ways, this reminds me of the fate that befell "John Carter". People are so blinded by the bad press, they just don't see the good movie under it all.