|Written by Abbie Bernstein|
|Wednesday, 10 December 1997|
At the time of its 1995 theatrical release, ‘Waterworld’ was the most expensive movie ever made, coming in at over $170 million and the money is, in fact, on the screen. Their millions spent on exceedingly well-executed special effects, ‘Waterworld’ is nothing if not an eyeful.
The principal problem with ‘Waterworld’ is that all of those bucks were spent on a fairly familiar post-apocalypse tale, albeit presented here in a brand-new variation. The set-up is that, centuries before the story proper begins, the polar ice caps have melted--shown in an effect that wittily utilizes the Universal logo at the start of Chapter 1--leaving all known land submerged well beneath the seas. The few survivors live in floating fortress-cities or exist as lone sailors. One of the latter, the Mariner (Kevin Costner), has gills behind his ears, only interacting with full humans to barter for fresh water. He is nevertheless drawn into the plight of a little girl, Enola (Tina Majorino), who has an enigmatic map to dry land tattooed on her back. Enola is sought after by the ferocious Deacon (Dennis Hopper), leader of a vast army of Smokers, so-called because of their use of old-fashioned combustible fuel.
Since ‘Waterworld’ is after all a big-budget action film, it’s not hard to guess what the finale will be, but the script by Peter Rader and David Twohy takes the protagonist’s surliness well beyond what we might expect. It’s possible to admire the writers’ daring and nerve in giving us such an unfriendly hero, while at the same time recalling all the good reasons this isn’t done often. Still, Costner’s portrayal has nuances that are surprising, suggesting someone who is antisocial because he’s had pathetically few opportunities in life to socialize, instead of simply being an unmotivated grouch.
Director Kevin Reynolds does a bang-up job (in several senses of the term) with the plentiful wild, woolly, watery and fiery confrontations. The Smokers’ assault on a floating city in Chapter 4 is a magnificent piece of staging that sustains its impact as it breathlessly unfolds. Reynolds may have departed the production in mid-edit (reportedly, Costner, who also holds a producing credit here, subsequently took over), but he certainly left the team some impressive footage to work with.
Comparisons to ‘The Road Warrior’ in both narrative and look are hard to avoid, with even Majorino’s Enola made up to look vaguely like Emil Minty’s Feral Kid from the earlier film. Still, the precise nature of Deacon’s headquarters is a clever touch and a lot of invention is displayed in Dennis Gassner’s production design and in Reynolds’ combat staging.
The DVD transfer has particularly rich and distinct shades of blue throughout, though one minor gripe here is that the chapters are broken into rather larger chunks, only 13 total for a film that runs two hours and sixteen minutes. The length starts to take its toll, especially when ‘Waterworld’ subtly shifts gears about halfway through, rushing and overdoing the bonding between the Mariner and Enola, overcompensating for his previous ferocity to the point where the sentiment feels forced. Ultimately, ‘Waterworld’ is not the all-round sinker of popular legend. It is in fact good explosive fun, but it lacks the heart and originality to be memorable on more than one level.