Here's a vastly underrated 90s classic!
It's like Mad Max, on the water.
It's like Mad Max, on the water.
Movie: Kevin Costner's Waterworld
Directed by Kevin Reynolds
Release date 1995
Genre Post-apocalyptic Science-fiction/Action film
With the cult impact of the Mad Max series back in the late 80s, and more precisely The Road Warrior's immense success in the US, a few imitations were bound to happen.
Waterworld is a 1995 similar type of post-apocalyptic science-fiction film. This one being what I call a "Kevin production". By that I mean it's a Kevin Costner film directed by his long-time friend screenwriter and director Kevin Reynolds who worked with the actor he was a barely known figure on such films as Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves or also Dances with Wolves (where Reynolds was an uncredited second unit director).
But the two ran into some conflicts during production of this post-apocalyptic film and Reynolds ended up walking away near the end of the post-production leaving Kevin Costner complete editing on the film himself.
But let's not delve into that side of the film. Lot of production problems throughout filming are far from the sole problems in Waterworld's failure at the box office. Let's move on, shall we?
Like most of these post-apocalyptic stories, this film is, of course, set in the "distant future". No actual date is given (but we can estimate it around the 2500s since they say over 500 years have passed since the cataclysmic event that turn this world post-apocalyptic). After the polar ice caps melted, the sea levels rose to cover (almost) the entire world. So many generations since the cause of that event people have no memories of the world before or that humans used to simply live on land. Although there are rumors of a legendary sought-after place called "Dryland", lost somewhere...
The film follows this antihero with no name, named in the credits simply "the Mariner", a drifter that goes from trading places to other safe havens where the surviving humans live scattered around this planetary-wide ocean.
Our story begins the day he sails to this floating atoll community build from saved material and scrap metal. Our drifter wants to trade some dirt - a highly previous commodity to help grow plants - for some clean supplies and plants. But they discover our main character has webbed feet and gills! Is he a mutant? Fearing him they capture and imprison him. That is when a bunch of pirates, the Smokers, raid the atoll looking for this orphan girl Enola rumored to have a map to Dryland tattooed on her back. And it turns out it's actually true!
The Smokers' leader, "the Deacon", wants that map to claim this mystical place for the Smokers! This woman who sold the plant to the Marine earlier, Helen, wants to help Enola leave the city. They try to leave with this old inventor Gregor, but confusion during the attack leaves them behind. She's forced to free the Mariner to escape.
At first the Mariner is really distant and treats them badly. He doesn't want to have anything to do with them. But slowly he opens up more and more to the women and even teaches Enola how to swim (how could anyone not know that in this world!?).
The Smokers locate them again, the boat is damaged because of the girls, so the Marine cuts their hair in retaliation. He finally shows Helen how he found all this dirt, they go underseas to explore the ruins of our civilization (which give us the best images of the film). Of course while they're submerged the Smokers find them again, which was really stupid. They capture Enola. Gregor finally finds them again from his flying vehicle using gas balloons. They meet up with other survivors from that first atoll.
Using a jet ski the Marine chases them down to an abandoned huge boat stuck on an artificial island made from trash. He finds the Deacon, kills most of his guards and finally blows up their oil reserve!
The film ends in a tug of war for Enola. But thanks to the power of bungee jump the Marine saves the day! They finally decider the tattoo symbols, which were coordinates to locate Dryland (atop Mount Everest!), now the only remaining forest! But there don't find any survivors there (Enola's parents are long dead). But at least more people will be able to come live there.
And the film ends in typical Mad Max fashion, with the Marine deciding to leave his newfound family behind and go back into this wild post-apocalyptic world...
Waterworld is kind of a strange one.
The film is kind of a mess, the story is all over the place (like the production itself), but it's a very pleasant film to look at.
There's always something to look at despite the premise. The ocean is well used and almost acts as a secondary character. Things are always in motion, despite not a lot of things making any sense.
This film was entirely a Kevin Costner production through and through. The film itself was originally imagined by Peter Rader, co-written by David Twohy writer and director of Pitch black. It's kind of funny to notice how much David Twohy would use again when he would later go on to create the Riddick films, both use the same basic elements. It's a story about a loner, a grump non-talkative antihero who gets dragged into a story to fight for and save a bunch of innocents he didn't want to have anything to do with. Of course, this all takes major inspiration from Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior to begin with.
The screenplay had a lot of revisions, even some last minute rewrites by TV alumni Joss Whedon.
The film features a pretty impressive cast all things considered. Aside from Kevin Costner in the main protagonist role, we also have the likes of Dennis Hopper, Jeanne Tripplehorn, a young Tina Majorino long before her breakthrough role in Napoleon Dynamite, as well as Michael Jeter. Funny enough this film also features Jack Black as a Smoker plane pilot, one of his earliest roles along his appearances on Demolition Man and The NeverEnding Story III. Strangely the film is also narrated by Hal Douglas - a man best known for his countless voice-overs for classic movie trailers and other commercials.
The budget of the film was planned huge. But it really got quickly out of hands during production with several more additional costs. Add to that a troubled filming around an artificial sea water enclosure (similar to what Titanic would do two years later), a set off coast in Hawaii, and an hurricane that destroyed most of said set. And Kevin Costner almost dying during shooting!!
Waterworld will always be remember has one of the most expensive films ever made, at the time (before Titanic came later on, as well as the Pirates of the Caribbean films since then). The film cost a ton. And yet despite it all it still made most of its budget back at the box office.
The film is really fun to look at. The work on the sets is gorgeous, with loads of details. The film has a great sense of set design with attention to details and world building. More surprisingly for the genre, the film also has a lot of humor (say, compared to the Mad Max films). Dennis Hopper seems to be having a blast as our lead villain, which is really strange in contrast to Kevin Costner's hero who is the complete opposite, way too serious for his own good and even downbeat. He even tortures his female companions! What kind of hero is that?!
The film received a lot mixed opinions. Some calling out its over-the-top costs. But if you're able to see past all that, it has a really fun premise and some great work on a unique futuristic post-apocalyptic world. The way life is depicted in the film is particularly great (and this was right before cheap CGi effects took over blockbuster films).
Cost controversies aside, it's a pretty decent post-apocalyptic adventure, with some really gorgeous sets. The action scenes are pretty good. The play is a bit too all over the place, and it doesn't bring anything new from just being a Mad Max ripoff set on the water, sure. Pacing and tone is a bit strange too, the film can't decide if it wants to be a fun lighthearted adventure or a gritty serious post-apocalyptic film.
This was one of these rare films to both be nominated to several awards for everything from sets to story, costumes, effects, etc. yet all it only really won was a Golden Raspberry Awards for worst supporting actor given to Dennis Hopper!
The music is epic but also kind of bland. James Newton Howard composed a grandiose score which is kind of forgettable. And there are some choices like a randomly inserted take on "Peter Gunn Theme". Originally the film was set to be scored entirely by Mark Isham, but Kevin Costner didn't like it and found it too "ethnic" and bleak for what he wanted the film to be. Wanting a more adventurous tone he had it completely rewritten by James Newton Howard!
Overall, Waterworld is an odd one! On one side it's a pretty impressive post-apocalyptic adventure set on a water planet. But it also feels disjointed, long, overblown and kind of incoherent.
All in all, it's a really fun film, Recommended for any fans of the genre. The sets are really impressive (I can't imagine how they would shoot this nowadays..).
Sure, it's basically Mad Max on the water. The film also has a lot of weird ideas in the script. So our hero is surrounded by water he cannot drink and also has a machine so great it even can recycle his own urine.. yet he still chooses to make drinkable water out of his own pee, why not simply remove the impurities and the salt from the sea water instead?
The film was accompanied by a lot of tie-in materials from a great novelization (with a lot of added details into this world) to pinball machines, video games for the Super NES (and an unreleased Mega Drive port only available through the Sega Channel back then), Game Boy, Virtual Boy and PC (as well as a planned but scrapped Sega Saturn version), and even theme park attractions at several Universal Studios theme parks still running to this day! There also was a comic book miniseries continuation in 1997 expanding a lot on the lore of film (such as where that sea monster came from and its connection to our hero).
Finally, if you ever wondered why Kevin Costner always looked off on the numerous home release DVD/Bluray covers as well as most official promotional material, posters comics and video games? Well, wonder no more. It's because Kevin Costner never allowed the use of his likeness on anything Waterworld since the movie's release...
I give it: