Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (March 16, 2016)
Every once in a while, a movie becomes a legendary flop, and 1995’s Waterworld stands as one of cinema’s biggest duds. It came with all sorts of budgetary and production problems and received a pretty chilly critical reception. Audiences were a bit more forgiving, as the flick made $88 million in the US, but it still went down as a famous bomb.
Which I didn’t think it deserved. I saw Waterworld back when it ran theatrically and actually thought it entertained. However, I’ve not seen it for more than 20 years, so I figured it was time to give it another look.
The flick takes us to a dismal future society in which the ice caps melt, water covers the earth and factions struggle for survival. Led by the Deacon (Dennis Hopper), a nasty clan of pirates called the Smokers rules the seas by force, and they attack anyone who stands in their way. All the survivors dream of finding dry land, though many believe its existence to be a myth.
We meet a loner simply called The Mariner (Kevin Costner). He seems to thrive more than others, which probably stems from the facts he’s evolved into a man with gills and webbed toes. This lands him in trouble with those who view him as a dangerous mutation, and one clan imprisons him.
Some believe a tattoo on the back of young Enola (Tina Majorino) shows the path to dry land. As Smokers attack the atoll, Enola’s caretaker Helen (Jeanne Tripplehorn) frees the Mariner when he agrees to take them with him. The stubbornly independent Mariner butts heads with the females as they try to stay clear of Smokers and perhaps find dry land.
WaterWorld opens with a sequence in which Costner drinks his own filtered urine. Man, if that’s not a metaphor for this flick’s legacy, I don’t know what is. It also begs the question: if this society’s scientists could figure out how to turn pee into drinkable fluid, why couldn’t they do the same with salt water?
Because then we wouldn’t get to see a major movie star imbibe his own piss, I guess. Most of Waterworld follows this same irrational path, as it prefers flash over logic.
Granted, one could hurl that accusation at many summer blockbusters, but Waterworld seems more muddled than most, largely because of its attempts to relevance. The film injects a pretty flaccid ecological message, primarily via the destructive Smokers. They misuse natural resources as they slash and burn their way across the planet – not too subtle, is it? Little nuance appears elsewhere, so expect a slew of ham-fisted messages across the film’s 135 minutes.
Those “lessons” become one of the film’s bigger weaknesses but they’re not alone. The acting seems flat at worst and campy at best, as none of the actors do much with their roles. The different styles fail to meld well and leave with a perplexing melange of performances.
“Broad and campy” dominates, though, and that trend gets tedious. Majorino also creates one of cinema’s all-time most grating children. Admittedly, she’s supposed to be irritating, but she goes above and beyond to the degree where we never embrace her. Even after we’re supposed to accept/like Enola, we don’t because she remains an annoyance.
Waterworld does offer interesting production design - though most of the people look like tourists just back from a trip to Jamaica – and it boasts some good action and stunts. Even there the movie can falter, though, as clumsy editing and direction undermine the action moments to some degree. We never a real flow or sense of style to these sequences, and that robs them of some effectiveness.
When Waterworld sticks with action, it works fairly well, but it drags and bores when it attempts to explore the relationships, all of which seem predictable and tedious. The movie gets credit for an unusual concept but it mostly feels mediocre and flawed.