You will have heard at least some of the legend of Waterworld’s fraught production and filming. The budget that spiralled out of control, the hirings and firings, Costner’s ego, sets literally sinking into the deep and the perils of shooting on the ocean all contrived to piss even harder on the film’s fire.
It’s place in history was assured from the get-go. Once the Hollywood press got wind that all was not well on Costner’s rusting ship of dreams the wags circled. “Fishtar” was one early cynical jibe, a reference to Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman’s famous flop that got critics all riled up less than a decade prior. The film’s budget soared by a further 75% to $175m ($270m in today’s money) and thus set itself up as a target of derision and willed failure. People are weird sometimes, aren’t they?
2015 is Waterworld’s 20th anniversary. In journalism we talk of the ‘fade factor‘. In its purest sense it refers to the influence media reports could have on trial juries, but in this case we can surely posit that Costner’s all at sea, fish out of water (not the last aquatic pun, I assure you) epic is due for a dusting down by the revisionists, pop culture’s unseen librarians? The answer from our end is a resounding YES anyway.
Well that trailer doesn’t really whet the appetite, does it? For a flick that relies on loud set pieces, the vast expanse of the ocean and just… a little more in the way of an actual explanation wouldn’t go amiss either. The world is covered in water… is Costner telling his audience that water is wet? Nice one, Captain Obvious. Hey, no wonder Variety and their ilk were all over this one from the beginning.
Despite everything: the production and filming mishaps – directors coming and going, Costner going full Axl Rose and doing it all himself by the end – and costs and the gills… oh god the gills (more on that later), Waterworld is still actually A Good Film. It’s a dystopian sci-fi blockbuster with pantomime villains, a giant sea monster, Jeanne Tripplehorn’s ass… it’s hard not to love it.
So anyway, it’s 500 years from now and the world is covered in water, it’s a fish-eat-fish world at sea, some survivors band together on rickety Atolls and try to survive day by day. They live in constant fear of the rag tag barbarians that comprise the Smokers and the often mentioned but never seen Slavers. The Smokers are led by Dennis Hopper’s Deacon; essentially a mix of Captain Hook and Dennis Hopper himself. The Smokers, God bless ’em, live on the rusted hulk of the Exxon Valdez; a behemoth of a tanker with a bellyful of crude oil and containing presumably thousands of dirty-faced, rough-necked Smokers.
It’s Hopper and the late Gerard Murphy, the oddly-named The Nord that prevent this movie from turning into some disastrous Dances On Wolves meets The Little Mermaid hybrid. Their histrionics, hyperbole and high-pitched cackling are straight from the How To Be A Bad Guy textbook and bring welcome relief to Costner’s annoyingly unerring straight play.
The Smokers are after Enola, the little girl who lives on an Atoll (who also turned up in Napoleon Dynamite as Deb) who is rumored to have a map to Dry Land tattooed on her back. Interesting, if a little painful to inflict a tattoo on the back of a baby, but ok sure. Costner happens to be at that very Atoll, trading dirt for shelves (trust me) and managing to piss everybody off just by being around. A skirmish ensues meaning Costner (aka the Mariner) is left jailed and awaiting execution the next morning. As luck would have it, the Smokers show up too and kick off one of the best action scenes OF ALL TIME (don’t even think about arguing):
Sure enough, the Mariner escapes, this time with Mobile Map Girl (an early attempt at GPS, maybe?) and Helen (Tripplehorn). The chase is then on as the Smokers hunt down the plucky trio. The film being as long and as expansive as it is means that, as much as I’d like to – and believe me I love this film, I don’t care – covering it all would be insane. The best parts tend to be where the Smokers are anyway. Watching Hopper and his associates drive around the lower decks of the ship responsible for the 54th biggest oil spill in history in a shell of a car while the beerhall brass of Peter Gunn Theme blasts out… makes you wonder what’s so cool about being a good guy.
Here’s the funny thing about the Smokers though – and a neat segue into the film’s other gaping plotholes – they are very, very wasteful. It’s implied that paper is one of the world’s rarest and most precious artefacts. And yet… they’re smoking cigarettes constantly! The booze they guzzle down like geese from the bad side of town… it’s 500 years old! Does Black Death Vodka and Jack Daniels keep for that long? Imagine the hangovers on THAT stuff. Then there’s the ‘little’ things such as: how do they refine the crude oil to service the Exxon Valdez, the plane they have (a 500 year old plane!) and all the jet-skis the little henchmen buzz around on. Later in the film, despite their numbers and technology, they try and lure the Mariner and Co. to an outpost by stringing up dead bodies and making them wave via a system of ropes and pullies. Marvellous stuff. Then there’s Costner’s gills and webbed feet. You don’t have to be Charles Darwin to know that half a millennium would never bring about such radical changes to human DNA. But then… the biggest plothole of all… I’m looking for logic in Waterworld! That’s what finally gets you – the hope.
Waterworld is probably best summed up by the missed opportunities it presented. Different cuts of the film floated around for a while, fleshing out the Deacon as a fundamental religious zealot who see’s Costner’s gills as an abomination and possessing beliefs not dissimilar to the old tale of Noah and the Ark. Explanation is provided to fill out the film’s many vagaries. All told this could have stretched to around five hours, which would have left critics salivating at the prospect of comparing it to Heaven’s Gate.
But still, the film’s awesome stunts, wild explosions, ridiculous characters (and their changing accents) and general sense of comic book wackiness is something most people can enjoy. Waterworld is an abject lesson in what happens when the press do the talking for you. Or maybe when you let Kevin Costner call the shots too much. Whatever. A lot of us have seen the great show at Universal Studios too.
If they made Waterworld today it would be helmed by Disney, star Johnny Depp as Jack Sparrow 2.0 and throw an old school boss like Donald Sutherland, Nick Nolte or Mickey Rourke in as the Deacon and let the madness commence. Besides, with John Carter and The Lone Ranger under their belts, Disney aren’t averse to pissing money down the drain, so if it’s a flop… no fuss, no muss. Waterworld’s opening shot finds the Mariner draining the main vein into a handy contraption that allows him to recycle it into fresh drinking water. A fitting image if there ever was one.