Length: 135 minutes
Release Date: July 28, 1995
Directed by: Kevin Reynolds, Kevin Costner
Genre: Action / Adventure / Sci-fi
Nearly unprecedented amounts of time and money went into the production of “Waterworld.” This alone is enough to send expectations of audiences and critics into ridiculous territory. Kevin Costner had recently helmed a bona fide classic with “Field of Dreams” and picked up a slew of awards. This no doubt added to the inescapable buzz surrounding the film’s release. In addition to “Field of Dreams,” Costner also boasted a blockbuster-heavy recent resume that included “Dances with Wolves,” “Bull Durham” and “JFK.” Therefore, “Waterworld” was seemingly the next installment in a line of unbeatable critical favorites with enormous box office earnings. While the film may have suffered due to lofty expectations, the movie is indeed far better than its reputation would suggest.
The story takes place in a vague, post-climate change future when the Earth has turned from a planet mostly covered by ocean to a literal water world. Pockets of humanity have survived on dangerous, floating pieces of civilization. Anything resembling land is rare, as is unsalted water, and humanity has devolved as resources have dwindled to the point that dirt is unimaginably precious.
One way in which Waterworld was ahead of its time was with its inherent commentary on global climate change, then still widely known as global warming. While science fiction has long used consequences of human folly as inspiration, this particular issue was still a few years from explosion. In fact, it was a decade away from being highlighted in “The Day After Tomorrow.” On top of that “Waterworld” had the distinction of being the most expensive movie of all time.
In this epic, Costner is Mariner, a solitary figure and a mutant of sorts with subtle amphibious features. However, everybody is pretty much a loner in this world as the more cooperative aspects of humanity have dimmed greatly. However, there are survivors of the watery apocalypse who attempt to retain the trappings of orderly civilization. Fortunately, as the film’s hero, Mariner is a little more interesting than that.
Rather than fixing himself in one of the tiny, ragged, water-locked communities, Mariner is quite literally a drifter. He survives using methods that few in today’s relatively resource-rich world would consider. He does business with various trades while traveling between different isolated cities, which are known as atolls.
The story comes alive with the introduction of a simple yet compelling villainous force called the Smokers. The Smokers do not seem too concerned with the rarity of resources as they burn fossil fuels and puff away on cigarettes. Dennis Hopper plays Deacon, the Smokers’ leader, in a role that echoes both his iconic work in “Apocalypse Now” as well as his turn as the villain in “Speed.” Like in “Speed,” Hopper brings an energy and a menace that both defies and elevates the material.
“Waterworld” was not Jeanne Tripplehorn’s first role, but along with “The Firm,” this picture introduced the star to the world at large. Tripplehorne portrays Helen, the film’s female lead, whose daughter has an enigmatic tattoo on her back that just may lead the way to what the entire world’s population is seeking: dry land.
This is where the plot of “Waterworld” takes on a mythical dimension that brings to mind Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey. It is all very serious without much in the way of levity or tongue-in-cheek detachment, but there is certainly room for seriousness in the world of expensive movie epics. However, just because it is serious does not mean that it is not fun. Mariner’s ability to journey to the undersea remains of a land-bound civilization unknown to most is undeniably entertaining.
Every cent of the movie’s famously colossal special effects budget is accounted for on screen. Rarely is a foreign yet strangely familiar world so well rendered, from striking establishing shots to gripping action scenes. Although its days of being projected onto cinema screens is over, this is definitely a movie best watched on Blu-ray on a worthy home theater setup.
“Waterworld” is lengthy and unusually sober for an action/sci-fi epic, but it is original and certainly worth watching for anybody who missed the original cinematic release. It is also worth re-watching for anybody interested in giving this unusual effort another chance.
Recent years have seen no shortage of criticism aimed at Hollywood for fearing original ideas. It is true that for big-budget summer releases, most recent Hollywood efforts have been rooted in properties that are proven successful. However, in the 1990s Hollywood produced the most expensive movie to date from an original, inventive screenplay. While the result may not be what anybody expected, “Waterworld” is a great effort that makes for a worthwhile 135 minutes.
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