Excess is probably the word to best associate with Waterworld. The excess of Hollywood in the 1990’s. After the blockbuster formed at the tail end of the 1970’s thanks to the efforts primarily of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, the 1980’s saw the phenomenon largely dominated by Olympian action heroes or stars whose names towered on the poster above the title – Schwarzenegger, Ford, Willis, Stallone, Snipes. Alternatively, sequels and franchises began to form and dominate – Bond continued making money, joined by Indiana Jones, Star Wars of course, Star Trek back from the dead, and a whole surfeit of sequels which evolved into trilogies, and continued the trend into the 1990’s. That decade, nonetheless, added an extra dimension.
Waterworld is indicative of the mega-budget ‘high concept’ which had crept in over the last decade and really bore fruit during the 90’s. A high concept movie, essentially, was a picture you could boil down in one, easy for a movie studio executive to understand soundbite. Waterworld’s, without question, would be ‘Mad Max on water’. Simple, clear, readable. Everyone had heard of Mad Max, a successful trilogy itself early in the 80’s. The idea of trying to replicate the success of George Miller’s desert-based post-apocalyptic action series would have seen the bean counter’s eyes kerching with dollar signs. Waterworld smacks of a high-concept, money-making exercise, taking this one-line idea and bulking it out into an event blockbuster.
The irony, of course, was how expensive Waterworld ended up being. A year later, Independence Day revitalised the alien invasion B-movie with a high-concept, simple idea which, schlocky as it may have been, reaped the rewards in dividends. Though chock-full of CGI, some of which at the time was stunning to audiences, it wasn’t nearly as expensive as Kevin Reynolds’ fourth collaboration with star Kevin Costner, given the amount of water-based sets which needed to be constructed in order to adequately sell the idea of a futuristic world where the polar ice caps have melted, consigning the ‘ancient’ world we live in now to the sea bed. Though a picture designed to make big bucks, Waterworld ultimately became one of the biggest critical and financial disasters of its decade, or indeed any decade.
Before filming began, this was no doubt unexpected. Costner and Reynolds came into it off the back of their monster 1991 hit, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, which remains one of the biggest movies of the 90’s. Costner was already riding waves of glory after his celebrated directorial/star effort Dances With Wolves in 1990 and following Prince of Thieves, he was arguably a big enough A-list player to have his own name above the poster. Reynolds was on his way to becoming one of the biggest directors of grand scale adventure in Hollywood; his previous film Rapa-Nui (about Easter Island and its legends) failed to strike a chord, but given his collaborations with Costner had produced gold, everything suggested Waterworld would be a major success for them both.
Several elements conspired to upset the apple cart, and effectively destroy what was fast becoming one of the most lucrative star/director partnerships in Hollywood. A tumultuous filming experience saw Reynolds quit the picture following clashes with ‘back-seat director’ Costner, already fraught from a hurricane which had destroyed a major part of the extravagantly designed set and caused the already significant budget to skyrocket. Waterworld, at the time, was the most expensive film ever made. Adjusted for inflation, it still lingers high up in lists of costly movies. Considering films such as Justice League, over twenty years on, are costing $300 million, $175 million on Waterworld in 1994 was an incredible amount of money.
Arguably the other major factor as to why Waterworld sank (sorry) is simply because the script felt empty and often unfinished. Joss Whedon, pre-Buffy the Vampire Slayer made him into a cult producing superstar but riding the successful waves of ghost-writing hit action thriller Speed, was flown in to conduct on-set re-writes but described the process as “hell” and undoubtedly it was too little, too late. The whole narrative was ill-conceived, involving a mysterious drifter known as ‘the Mariner’ (Costner) reluctantly helping a woman (Jeanne ‘whatever happened to her?’ Tripplehorn) and her ward (Tina Majorino), a child who has a tattoo leading to a mythical ‘Dryland’ on her back, sought after by vicious pirates the Smokers, led by Dennis Hopper’s overblown, one-eyed Deacon.
Stop me if this sounds awfully like Mad Max, by the way. Using Miller’s films as inspiration is one thing, actively picking up and re-purposing large chunks of character, style and theme is quite another, and Waterworld just feels akin to a charmless evocation of Miller’s far more unique, far more eccentric Antipodean expanse. Costner’s Mariner is no match for Mel Gibson’s quiet Max (or even Tom Hardy’s later take in Fury Road), with Costner mistaking brooding intensity for stilted rudeness quite often; the Mariner is intensely difficult to like across the entire picture, and David Twohy’s haphazard script does nothing to help the matter. It even ignores the genuinely interesting backstory of how the Mariner has gills which allow him to breathe underwater, which seem there purely to aid his revelation of the underwater cities halfway through the film.
Waterworld doesn’t just shamelessly port in characters and ideas from far better movies, it also misses a wealth of storytelling opportunities which could have elevated it out of being simply an example of wasteful, noisy and misjudged blockbuster excess. Its future (guesstimated by production designer Dennis Gassner as being around 2500) posits a world where the ice caps have melted and its suggested the reason was ‘ancient’ human neglect. Very little is done with this moral, environmental warning to modern audiences, the film perhaps fearful of becoming too preachy, but the ice caps feel throwaway when they should be essential to the thrust of the narrative and the Mariner himself; surely his evolution to breathe underwater isn’t localised to just him? Are there more humans who have been forced to biologically adapt to a world without land? Waterworld doesn’t even attempt to answer these questions.
Dryland, too, ends up being a physical MacGuffin rather than anything the characters spend any time truly considering. Why did it survive the polar apocalypse that sank the rest of the world’s landmass? The idea of a lost, surviving land is considered in appropriately mythological terms by the future survivors of humanity, but the film throws away what would be considered arcane artefacts related to these myths – bar a hint, on finding Dryland, of ‘ancient’ Japanese culture. Take Majorino’s Enola finding a box of ‘Crayola’ in the Mariner’s trimaran, recovered from his sojourns down to the sunken city depths; this is equivalent to when George the time traveller in George Pal’s The Time Machine from 1960 finds books in the Eloi building, which simply crumble to the touch. Crayola should represent a world lost to history, to time, as finding pottery in the remnants of Pompeii do to us now, but its barely a plot point.
The point is that Waterworld had the potential to explore and carefully reveal a fascinating ‘future history’ as part of its backstory. It could have created its own sense of world mythology, around the idea of Nature reclaiming the earth from its wasteful forebearers. It could have explored the significance of the Mariner and how elements of humanity had biologically adapted to remain the top of the food chain; at one point it suggests the existence of a sea monster but, again, wastes the opportunity to explore its biological function. A tie-in comic reputedly does touch on these elements but it should have been present on screen. Instead, Waterworld wants to focus on theatrics, on explosions, on hammy bad guys and derring-do, yet does none of them particularly well.
Perhaps this is too harsh. Waterworld is undoubtedly a product of its time. Blockbusters in the 80’s and 90’s were about champions, about heroes. They were seldom about worlds, mythology or a bigger narrative picture. They took high-concept ideas and ran with them, be they the alien invasions of Independence Day, the crashing asteroids of Armageddon, or the exploding volcanos of Dante’s Peak. Their purpose was to entertain, fully exploiting the CGI revolution started by James Cameron’s Terminator 2 at the start of the decade and realised spectacularly in Spielberg’s Jurassic Park in 1993. Everything after that wanted to top it, to become the next great step forward in cinematic extravagance. Waterworld is simply an expression of that.
It will never, however, be remembered in the same pantheon as some of those aforementioned movies because it lacks the one thing almost all of them had, in spades: heart. Waterworld has the epic scale, the grandeur, the towering oceanic shots, the boisterous (if sometimes misjudged) score and the vast, expensive sets. It just has no soul.