The film opens majestically, with the voice of Hal Douglas (the "In a world..." movie trailer voice) supplying the introduction. In the distant future, the polar ice caps have melted and water covers the Earth. Humanity has become splintered on the Waters of this World, with many banding together in scrap heap settlements. Others find themselves as lone drifters, sailing across the globe. And then there are Smokers, the bullies. The Smokers use gas- and oil-powered boats to loot, plunder, and murder the timid innocents in floating settlements. The leader of the Smokers, the Deacon (Dennis Hopper) has promised his group that he will take them to dry land. You see, he has heard a rumor about a little girl with a map to land tattooed on her back. One of his men, the Nord (Gerard Murphy), went undercover to a settlement and actually found the girl. Enola (Tina Majorino) is an orphan in the settlement, looked after by the kind Helen (Jeanne Tripplehorn).
|"I will trade you three tots for a glimpse at your sweet back tat."|
One day, a strange drifter (Kevin Costner) sails into the settlement, looking to trade a jar of dirt (which is naturally rare --- does this mean he's seen Dry Land?) for money, which he intends to spend on some necessities and then leave. As luck would have it, the settlers discover that the drifter is a mutant (he has gills and webbed feet!) and plan to kill him; before they can do it, the Smokers attack. Seeing the drifter as their only way to freedom, Helen and Enola free him and escape the settlement. But the Smokers are soon chasing after them, intent on grabbing Enola and discovering the path to the oh-so-elusive Dry Land.
That doesn't sound so bad, does it? I mean, aside from the incontrovertible fact that all movie boat chases are lame, it doesn't sound awful. In broad strokes, there's really nothing wrong with Waterworld. For starters, it looks great. If you told me that they melted the polar ice caps to film this, I would believe you. The sets are enormous and elaborate. The wide shots are impressively land-free. Even the costumes and the props are all pretty cool. This is definitely what the world will look like after the inevitable zombie apocalypse, when flatulent zombies cause greenhouse gases to increase and the polar ice caps to melt. In a lot of ways, the production values of this movie remind me of an uber-expensive version of a Road Warrior marina show.
A lot of thought went into the groups in the movie, too. I like that there are evolutionary next-steps, like Costner's character, because that makes sense. I don't know how much sense, because I don't know how far in the future it would take for that kind of evolution to be plausible, but I like it in my ignorance. I like that there is a lot of religion in these hard, water-filled times; it makes sense. I also like that normal humans hate and fear mutants, because that also seems like our naturally human reaction to the new and unknown. Besides, I'm a huge X-Men fan. I thought the importance that the Smokers put on cigarette smoking was pretty interesting, too. There are a lot of details in this movie that are very impressive and clever.
The cracks in Waterworld become apparent once you turn the volume up. The script is bad, the plot is dumb, the editing is poor, the direction is ineffective and the acting is awful.
|A fail wrapped up in a flop.|
The first sign that something is wrong with this movie is actually in the very first scene. It begins with a nice shot of Kevin Costner's ass and, right when you think that this is going to be about gluteus maximii, you see a stream of urine. Great. Now it's a fetish video. Actually, we see Costner butt, pee, and then he pours the pee into a Brita filter (or something), gargles it, and then spits into his little lime tree pot. While I think that this is certainly one of the more memorable scenes in the film and it offers an interesting look at the science part of this science-fiction epic, it's not exactly a great introduction to the hero of the story. Typically, in epic movies, you want the hero to seem larger than life, maybe dangerous or cool, but definitely a force to be reckoned with. The first thing Waterworld teaches us about its hero is that he drinks urine. Not exactly the iconic establishing image most filmmakers go for.
Normally, I would condemn the director for following a screenplay that opens with pee-flavored mouthwash, but with a screenplay this wretched, that might have looked good by comparison. If you don't believe me, here's a sample bit of script, taken from Dennis Hopper's wealth of terrible lines:
Well, I'll be damned. It's the gentleman guppy [Costner]. You know, he's like a turd that won't flush.
Ha. Ha. I get it. It's a poop joke. Does anyone want to explain why anyone in a Water World would need water pipes to flush anything? Or why Kevin Costner's (nameless) character decides to take Helen on an undersea voyage only minutes after escaping some Smokers that they assumed were still following them? Nobody wants to stick up for these script choices? I don't blame you. This is a story that has the look of an epic, but the focus is ridiculously myopic. In a whole world of ocean, you're telling me that we have to keep running into the same handful of characters? By the way, the far future is awfully Caucasian with Midwestern accents. I didn't realize that Wisconsin was so well-known as a center of maritime excellence. What happened to everybody else? Are the British just floating in the waters a few miles above merry old England? How about the Japanese and everybody else? For a movie whose production crew spent so much time making sure the details were right, this script feels curiously under-edited.
I realize that I have left out several other plot-related head-scratchers, but I can only get so angry without deleting everything I type. So, in case you're curious, here are a few other problems that popped into my head as I watched:
- What is everyone eating? They make a big deal about Costner catching a fish, so how does a ship full of Smokers manage to get fed?
- Where do the cigarettes come from?
- Why do the Smokers play with flares and fireworks when they celebrate if they are on an oil tanker?
- Was it worth the eye-roll to reveal that the Smoker oil tanker was the Exxon Valdeez?
- Okay, I buy into the notion that the Smokers get all their fuel from the 'Deez. Where did they get all their gas-powered jetskis and the airplane from? Were they floating out at sea?
- Why does anyone need to capture Enola? Why don't they just make copies of the map?
- If Enola was tattooed so she could find her way home, why did they tattoo her where she couldn't read the tattoo?
- Where is all the oxygen coming from? It looks like plants are a rarity in this world, so how is everybody breathing?
I actually don't completely hate this movie. It's stupid, sure, but it's not too painful to watch. I thought the actors were one-dimensional, but with a script like this, what do you expect? Costner was okay as the nameless sailor, but he was far more entertaining and appealing when he was looking out for himself instead of being a traditional hero. If nothing else, I can honestly say that Kevin Costner's performance is without shame; at no moment does he appear to realize just how silly this movie is, and he treats every garbage scene like it has complex meaning behind it.
|"What about striped pants, semi ponytail, and seashell earrings (found where?) sounds silly?"|
The direction was bad, if you view it from a working-with-the-cast perspective, but I will give Kevin Reynolds credit for framing several cool-looking scenes. If this was a silent movie (with no subtitles) this would look like a solid flick.
Is Waterworld a good movie? Not even close. What it is, though, is a solid idea for a good movie. While I cannot fathom why it gets such critical leniency from major critics, it's not a terrible film. But it's not good. At all. I would give it a pass and say that it's fun to laugh at and dub it Lefty Gold, but it's a long movie that feels even longer. To watch this movie and pay attention to the whole thing is pretty exhausting. If they cut 40 minutes out of the final product, I would probably recommend it. As it stands, though, it is more effort than it's worth.