Waterworld turned 20-years old this summer. The post-apocalyptic high-seas adventure is one of the most notorious films in cinematic history, popularized for the troubled production, warring cast and crew, and a budget that spiraled out of control more than anything on the screen. The $175 million-plus budget made Waterworld the most expensive film of all time in 1995, seemingly setting it up for failure weeks and months before it hit theaters. The middling reviews upon is release didn’t help the cause, and before long the film came known as either Fishtar! (a reference to the Warren Beatty-Dustin Hoffman desert bomb Ishtar!), or Kevin’s Gate (referring to Heaven’s Gate, Michael Cimino’s bloated epic disaster in the early 80s).
Now, however, with 20 years of perspective, has Waterworld somehow improved? Kevin Costner, star of the film and responsible for a great deal of the strife on set, seems to think so. In a recent statement, Costner claimed the film was “beloved around the world,” and “the movie with all its imperfections was a joy for me … a joy to look back upon and to have participated in.” While Costner’s semi-delusional hindsight regarding his “Mad Max on Water” may be a bit out of whack for the masses who still enjoy heaping snark upon the watery grave of the 1995 debacle, Waterworld is not as bad as everyone remembers.
It isn’t perfect, not even close, but predispositions doomed the film regardless of its merits. Controversy aside, the finished product has plenty to offer fans of the genre. The Universal logo begins the narrative, as we zoom into the globe within the logo and watch as the continents disappear into a world of, well, of water. The planet is covered in sea, leaving a fractured, nomadic society. Costner plays The Mariner, a cynical loner and a hybrid with gills behind his ears. His story unfolds as almost a carbon copy of Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, as The Mariner visits a floating city to trade goods and move on. He has dirt, dry land which has become mythological in this futuristic wasteland. Before he can go about his business, however, he is embroiled in an assault on the floating city from The Smokers.
The Smokers are, again, direct ripoffs of the villainous nomads in the Mad Max films, only here they are led by the 90s favorite villain, Dennis Hopper. Wearing an eyepatch to cover a shockingly buggy glass eye and spitting fire, Hopper’s Deacon is after a young girl, Enola (Tina Majorino), who has a map to dry land tattooed on her back. Hopper’s fiery venom sends the story into admirable camp at times. The Mariner takes with him, in his escape from the atoll, Enola and Helen, a bartender played by Jeanne Tripplehorn, who is along for the ride for one reason and one reason only: to develop a relationship with The Mariner.
Waterworld then settles into an action-adventure groove, with predictable outcomes. The Mariner is standoffish with Helen and Enola at first, but of course comes to love and appreciate them both. Meanwhile, Deacon is hot on their tale in his ship, which is revealed to be the Exxon Valdez in a clever wink to one of the biggest environmental disasters of the 20th century. While it may follow the company line as far as story is concerned, visually, Waterworld has some serene action set pieces and some thrilling adventure. There is a moment in the middle where The Mariner takes Helen on a tour of an underground city that still holds up after two decades of CGI improvement. You can see where the money was spent, and subsequently blown thanks to poor weather, poor planning, and a feud between Costner and his hand-picked director and friend, Kevin Reynolds, who walked (or, perhaps, swam) off the set.
Taken at face value, ignoring the controversial backstory, Waterworld has aged well. Not like fine wine, per se, but at least a middle-of-the-road Bordeaux. It has charm, and perhaps some of the attractiveness of the film in 2015 is due to the unfair shake it received in 1995. Had the publicity machine not spiraled out of control back in the day, the film may have been a moderately-received success. It deserves a second look.