Let’s get this out of the way right from the start: Waterworld is not a terrible movie. Despite its infamous reputation, it’s not nearly as bad as legend would have us believe. It is a deeply flawed film, but it’s no more or no less horrible than 80% of the other films in its easily-identifiable genre of post apocalyptic action movies. That being said, any film that opens with the hero peeing into a cup, recycling it through a rusty Rube Goldberg coffee maker, and drinking it again is probably not destined for greatness. But to understand this movie it’s helpful to step back in time a couple of decades…
The 1990’s were kind of a strange time. Grunge rock was saturating the airwaves, people were trying to figure out new technologies like cell phones and the internet, and and school kids passed their time by trading cardboard circles on the playground. Along with these strange activities came a healthy dose of fear about the earth either burning up from mysterious holes in the ozone layer or collapsing under the weight of gabillions of tons of cans that schoolkids refused to recycle. Even PBS got on the bandwagon with an almost-unfathomably cheesy cartoon about purple aliens who battle capitalists, or something like that. But despite repeated efforts to help people understand the catastrophic consequences of refusing to reduce and reuse, the message just wasn’t getting through. And as we recently learned from the Gulf Oil Spill, who better to turn to in dire situations than Kevin Costner?
Yup, that’s right. Dances With Wolves himself was going to singlehandedly drive home the message that we all need to stop drinking out of juice boxes and once and for all by making a movie where the entire planet was covered with water because…(wait for it)…the ice caps have melted thanks to humanity’s environmental shortsightedness! But what’s that, you say? The ice caps melting would only cause the oceans to rise a couple hundred feet? Bah! Facts matter not to Hollywood when a buck can be made, and so in 1996 Waterworld was unleashed in theaters across America. It tells the tale of a nameless man known only as The Mariner (Kevin Costner) who…um…sails a boat a lot. Sometimes he meets people, but since this fish-eat-fish world is pretty low on resources people aren’t all that friendly anymore. And the least friendly of all are a scrappy group of metalheads known as Smokers who go around beating people up and shooting things because…well, we’re actually never given any sort of reason why the Smokers do this. It was probably just to fill in a box on the casting sheet: “Bad guys? Check.”
Pretty soon the Mariner comes across an atoll where a couple dozen people are holed up and eking out a living by eating dirt and counting plastic bottle caps. There’s also a girl named Enola who has a mysterious tattoo on her back that could very well lead to dry land, a crazy scientist, and a community leader who looks just like Al Borland whose sole purpose in the movie is to deliver painfully dull bits of exposition. The inhabitants sentence the Mariner to die because he’s different from them (because what’s a postapocalyptic thriller without some modern social commentary thrown in for good measure?), but before you know it those darn Smokers show up and start blasting the atoll to bits and running into it with jet-skis. At this point one might wonder why, in a world where even scraps of paper are regarded as priceless treasures, a group of individuals would be more interested in destroying a floating fortress rather than simply capturing it and taking its resources, thus giving them a strategic advantage and a home base for staging operations. Because explosions are cool, that’s why! And what about the fact that blowing the atoll to smithereens might very well kill the tattooed girl they are so interested in finding? Because explosions are cool! *sigh*
The Mariner, Enola (“alone” spelled backwards…get it?), and her adoptive mother Helen (Jeanne Tripplehorn) spend the rest of the movie sailing around on the Mariner’s boat while having domestic disputes about Crayola crayons and taking swimming lessons. The Smokers show up from time to time to cause headaches and complain about how that darn Mariner keeps getting away from them. But we all know where this is going and how it’s going to end, and to be honest it doesn’t even matter that much. And yet, after all this, I maintain that Waterworld is actually not that terrible.
Despite the hokey premise, the silly cast of characters, and the wandering plot, Waterworld is a pretty stunning action flick with ridiculously gigantic setpieces and one of the coolest villains in recent memory. The sets are real, and when the enormous atoll is getting ripped to shreds the feeling of danger is pretty darn visceral. The entire movie strives to belong to that elite pantheon of films who deserve the adjective epic, and even though it doesn’t work it gets some points for trying. The ending climax aboard a derelict floating tanker is an amazing sight to behold, and Costner displays the type of old-school heroics we don’t often get in wimpy modern protagonists nowadays. But even more than the go-big-or-go-home scale of the presentation, the real reason to see Waterworld is Dennis Hopper. As the leader of the Smokers, he basically is given free reign to be as mean and despicable as any PG-13 villain in movie history. And boy, does he go for broke here. He gleefully romps around tossing insults and sly quips like candy at a parade, offing his enemies with joyful aplomb, and is clearly two shades shy of all-out crazy. Slinging lines like “You know, he’s like a turd that won’t flush” with what appears to be actual, genuine sincerity is something only Hopper could have pulled off, and his performance is so brazenly ostentatious it’s a sight to behold.
Waterworld is often remembered as one of the biggest bombs in movie history, but it actually turned a healthy profit in total worldwide numbers. This environmentalist fable-turned-action epic does not reach greatness, but not for lack of trying. It is no Mad Max, Children of Men, or 12 Monkeys, but it’s no Battlefield Earth either. It’s definitely worth a look, as long as you know what you’re getting yourself into.
Last 5 posts by Simon R.
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