Directed by Kevin Reynolds. Starring Kevin Costner, Dennis Hopper, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Tina Majorino, Leonard Cimino, Kim Coates, Zakes Mokae, Jack Black. 135 minutes. Certificate: 12.
Released by Arrow Video on Blu-Ray on 21st January 2019
It’s long been the case that some of the most enduring and fascinating Hollywood blockbusters are those that attracted the most negative press attention, both before and after release. John Boorman’s THE EXORCIST II: THE HERETIC (1977) is a mess, but it’s also one of the boldest, most compellingly bizarre major studio sequels of all time. WATERWORLD followed engagingly offbeat early 90’s “failures” HUDSON HAWK and LAST ACTION HERO by being written off as a turkey before anyone had a chance to see the final cut. The publicity surrounding its allegedly fraught production became notably fixated on the movie’s then-unprecedented cost, though anyone accounting for inflation realised it wasn’t the much-trumpeted “Most Expensive Movie of All Time”. Emerging in the summer of 1995 alongside safe Hollywood fare like APOLLO 13 and well-behaved franchise pictures like BATMAN FOREVER and DIE HARD WITH A VENGEANCE, it eventually earned a few almost grudgingly positive reviews but proved no longer newsworthy when it made its money back.
One of the great things about WATERWORLD for fans of a certain niche of exploitation movies is the way it often looks and feels like Hollywood gave a fortune to Enzo Castellari to make a cyberpunk-infused hybrid of AQUAMAN and MAD MAX. In reality, of course, WATERWORLD reunited director Kevin Reynolds with his ROBIN HOOD: PRINCE OF THIEVES star Kevin Costner; Costner had already faced an ill-conceived backlash regarding his self-directed epic DANCES WITH WOLVES (dismissed as “Kevin’s Gate” by pre-internet trolls-with-typewriters), which went on to win critical bouquets and Oscars galore.
It opens with a marvellous transition from the classic Universal logo to an image of Earth following the melting of the polar ice caps. 21st century news regularly reminds us of our role in our planet’s imminent rapid ecological collapse, though, of course, horror movies were covering this territory decades earlier in everything from Hitchcock thrillers (THE BIRDS) to nihilistic Ozploitation (LONG WEEKEND). Confirming the grim prognosis is a brief voiceover narration taken from the film’s own trailer: “Those who survived have adapted to this new world…” Our introduction to Costner’s character, The Mariner, reveals his adapted, self-sufficient Trimaran and depicts him recycling his own piss into drinking water. An early line of dialogue perhaps deliberately comments on the film’s much publicised production costs: “Nothing’s free in Waterworld…”
In this dystopian vision of the future, new forms of currency are exchanged, briefly glimpsed products from centuries earlier fill out the set design (cans of the delicious-sounding “Smeat”) and folk like Jeanne Tripplehorn eke out some kind of living by selling precious commodities like tomato plants. Debate rages about the seemingly mythical “Dry Land” that everyone aspires to reach, and characters reflect on how this existence came to be: “The ancients did something terrible hundreds of years ago…” The Mariner, a future man who has developed gills and webbed feet, is sentenced to be “recycled” after being caught in possession of dirt apparently from Dry Land, but escapes and flees from Waterworld’s army of pirates “The Smokers” - with Tripplehorn and a young girl (Tina Majorino) in tow – the latter with what appears to be a map to Dry Land tattooed on her back.
Happy to hurl kids who can’t swim into the ocean due to inadequate survival provisions and brutishly hacking off his female companions’ hair, The Mariner is marvellously misanthropic and monosyllabic: the nearest we have to a hero in this post-apocalyptic Earth is an ill-tempered, sullen drifter who would much rather be alone. Inevitably, the film’s tougher edges were blunted a tad by the studio’s (understandable) trepidation about a significantly darker first cut of the film; consequently, The Mariner is eventually mellowed out by his companions and undergoes a familiar hero’s journey. The latter stages echo the evolution of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s neutered killing machine in TERMINATOR 2: JUDGEMENT DAY (at the time, the benchmark for large-scale action spectacles and cutting-edge visual FX), as the Mariner learns compassion by teaching the girl to swim and flirts with romantic entanglement (“I’ll breathe for both of us…”). The concessions to Hollywood formula are reinforced by the tearful farewell between the leads during the bittersweet Dry Land finale.
Positioned between the ground-breaking James Cameron blockbusters (T2 and 1997’s TITANIC), WATERWORLD delivers extraordinary spectacle courtesy of its vast sets, stunt work and physical effects. A striking journey through the underwater remnants of the “civilisation” lost centuries earlier offers a marvellous visual echo of PLANET OF THE APES (a further APES-inspired reveal involving Mount Everest at the end was strangely cut from the released version of the film). The first jet-ski assault by the Smokers is a hugely impressive extended set piece involving multiple modes of imperilled transportation, Costner almost drowning in a sinking cage and an array of simultaneous explosions. The extended climax centres around the appropriated Exxon Valdez, with the Smokers’ leader The Deacon (Dennis Hopper) toasting Joseph Hazelwood, the Valdez’s captain, with his surviving bottle of Jack Daniels.
Leading a startling rogues gallery of supporting grotesques, Hopper delivers his most maniacal big-budget villain – following a relatively restrained turn as the bad guy in SPEED – and is gruesomely maimed early on, allowing a big summer family blockbuster juicy glimpses of his bloody empty eye socket. Perverting Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech and fond of crudely insulting The Mariner (described variously as a “retard” and “The Gentleman Guppy – he’s the turd that won’t flush”), Hopper’s deranged comic book antagonist is a lot of fun to watch. Secondary weirdos add to the sense of a massive production with an anarchic B movie undercurrent: perennial oddball Kim Coates is particularly disturbing as a jittery, sleazy Irish drifter with nasty designs on the female characters – though the movie is full of such dirty, unpleasant characters. Many are played by distinctive character actors like Robert Joy, Zakes Mokae and Robert Joy; a young Jack Black (pre I STILL KNOW WHAT YOUR DID LAST SUMMER!) is also on board.
An elaborate, often exhilarating hybrid of apocalyptic 1970’s American cinema, classic Hollywood westerns and the wave of Cold War-era dystopian action pictures (Dean Semler, who shot the greatest MAD MAX picture, ROAD WARRIOR, is also cinematographer here), WATERWORLD holds up as a truly impressive, rousingly demented event movie. When vast amounts of money are at stake, Hollywood will typically play it safe in search of high test audience scores and guaranteed big opening weekends. Sometimes, however, something a little subversive and weird slips through the net and we should all pay attention. Particularly when it also boasts tremendous spectacle and a barrage of miserable murmurings from the press.
Extras - Arrow’s 4k restoration of WATERWORLD makes this one very handsome looking 24 year old. Included with the three disc set are two longer cuts of the movie that fans will already be aware of: a significantly longer TV version and the European “Ulysses” edition.
The centrepiece of the extra features is “Maelstrom”, a 102 minute “making of” that covers a lot of ground. Screenwriter Peter Rader (who came from the exploitation movie realm with movies like GRANDMOTHER’S HOUSE) talks of conceiving an initially low-budget project defined as “Mad Max on water”, while Kevin Reynolds recalls not heeding Steven Spielberg’s advice to avoid shooting on water. We get a fascinating insight into the lengthy, challenging Hawaii shoot, standing sets the circumference of football stadiums and the much-ballyhooed disputes between long-term friends Costner and Reynolds. Reynolds gives the press attention deservedly short shrift, and third-act disputes (involving Joss Whedon in script-doctor mode) are examined, alongside the studio intervention to soften the overall tone. (The latter involving the replacement of Mark Isham’s original score with a more conventionally triumphant adventure movie soundtrack by James Newton Howard).
The biggest thing that we can take away from this documentary and a revisit to WATERWORLD itself is a sense of awe from what was achieved with a huge amount of practical effects: the fleeting moments that age it are entirely due to the shelf-life of early CGI (notably a sea creature that now looks like a mediocre Sy-Fy Channel monster). It’s unlikely that the majority of today’s green screen-heavy blockbusters will look this good in 4 years’ time, let alone 24.
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