Friday, March 25, 2011


Here's an interesting fact about Waterworld: although it is often referred to as a colossal flop, it eventually (thanks to VHS and DVD sales) made over $100 million in profit. Another interesting tidbit: the movie currently holds a 78% rating from Top Critics on Rotten Tomatoes, which indicates that most critics give the film a positive review.  To be honest with you, when I learned that this popularly lambasted epic was both critically and commercially successful, I felt my first urge ever to watch this movie.  I had always assumed that it was a big, expensive puddle of suck, not worth wasting my time on.  However, after a Costner fan heard me ridiculing the movie (to be fair, it was more of a dig at The Postman, which I like to call "Dirtworld"), they hit me with the facts and I was helpless to resist.

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'm sure there's more, but the more I list, the more depressed I am that I sat through the whole thing.  Well, at least nobody can lie and tell me that the ending totally makes the movie worthwhile.

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?"
Dennis Hopper was in his full-fledged 90s movie villain mode here, and he is comically evil.  To call this acting "bad" misses the point.  His overacting fits the movie well and adds some humor (unintentional and otherwise) to a pretty serious movie.  I wasn't impressed by Jeanne Tripplehorn or little Tina Majorino, but it's not like they were butchering their lines.  You can't put crap into a blender and get a delicious strawberry milkshake.  Still, they weren't good.  Kim Coates was pretty terribly as a nutty drifter, but the rest of the cast is pretty inoffensive.  I noticed R.D. Calls in a minor role and, if you ever had a doubt that Jack Black was a struggling actor in Hollywood, here's his bit part:

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.


  1. I actually enjoyed it. However, you asked some questions that have easy answers. Food. Well, they fish. The real question is why would fishing rods be useless? They actually wouldn't. Oxygen? Um, you know most of the oxygen comes from the ocean.

    The real flaw with the movie is if the polar ice caps melted, it would not cover the world in water. If ice in a glass melts, does the water level change?

  2. I get that they should be eating fish. However, when Costner catches a fish, the other characters act amazed. In a water world, either everyone knows how to fish, or everyone is eating something else. I took the amazement as a hint that their food was coming from elsewhere.

    As for the oxygen, I should have phrased that complaint better. There are no visible plants in this world, and fish seem to be a rarity (no fish bone necklaces or anything like that, amazement at fishing, etc). Without fish to eat them, I would assume that phytoplankton and regular plankton would build up, and the ocean would be covered in ocean-friendly plants. Since oxygen comes from these plants, I still think the question of the oxygen source is a good one.

    As for the polar ice caps, fair enough.

    1. I know this is a year and a half after the last comment, but as an oceanographer, I couldn't help but leave a comment. So. Oxygen wouldn't be a problem as most of the world's oxygen comes from phytoplankton and cyanobacteria. The earths atmosphere was fully oxygenated long before terrestrial plants evolved. Secondly, melting ice caps would certainly cause sea-level rise, as they have in the past. Ice locked on land (Greenland, Antarctica) would contribute to the rise. Also thermal expansion of the oceans would add a bit to that rise as well. The major flaw with the film is that for much of the history of Earth, there were no ice caps and yet there was still a great deal of dry land. The present polar ice caps probably didn't appear until about ~ 25-40 Million years ago. So sea level may rise may be - I dunno - 100-200 metres, but that's it.

      As for the lack of fish and fishing in the movie. That's just plain stupid. Fish would be abundant and an ideal food source....

  3. I expect the fish have been killed off by the rising see temperatures.

    Water level won't increase with ice melting but the polar ice helps to reflect the rays of the sun back out to space. With the ice gone the solar rays will no doubt damage the ozone even more meaning greater sea temp rises.

  4. Of course they'd be able to find jet-skis, they do float after all. And algae creates oxygen just as much as plants do.

    1. Okay, I like the jet ski explanation. As for the algae, I agree that it would make sense --- there just doesn't seem to be any in this movie, either floating on the water or beneath when Costner dives to the ocean floor.

  5. HAHAHA! why would they put a tattoo on her back? Hilarious!
    Maybe it was trendy and meant nothing.

  6. the way I make it meaningful to myself is to view it as an allegory. The land represents the common law republic, the water overtaking the land represents the overlay of maritime commercial law usurping the law of the land. The unnamed sailor has power because he is aware that the water is actually just an overlay on top of dry land, and his power comes from his ability (via gills) to exist in either world.

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