“Waterworld” is the first of the infamous duo of post apocalyptic films starring Kevin Costner that came out in the mid 90s. Both were big budget epics, both over two hours in length, and both were largely considered failures.
As of the writing of this review, “Waterworld” has a score of 41% on Rotten Tomatoes. At the time of its release, it was the most expensive Hollywood production to date, costing $175 million, but only made $88 million in U.S. theaters. It actually did much better internationally, and through later VHS and DVD sales, but its reputation as a “bomb” had already been dropped on the civilian population. There are many things this film does right, but also, like many of the ships it features, there are many holes in its hull. Many also criticize it for its similarities in plot to the Mad Max films “The Road Warrior” and “Beyond Thunderdome”. Personally, it is one of my favorites of the genre.
Waterworld opens with a CG visual of the ice caps melting and flooding the earth completely. A narrator tells us that people have adapted, and we close in on a rusted trimaran, and a plastic bucket…and someone peeing in said bucket. Kevin Costner, decked out in scavenged clothing, pours his urine into a hand-pump filtering apparatus and drinks the potable water that comes out the other end. A speaker sounds (possibly some sort of sonar, indicating that he’s passing over some sunken salvageables) causing him to jump into the water, and we are shown around his ship via a series of static shots that shows truly how well-stocked and mechanically equipped it is. Suddenly, a stranger’s hand steals the limes from the small tree potted on his boat.
Costner rises from his dive with a sack of goodies (ski boots! possibly even more impractical than roller skates!) too late to realize he’s been swindled, but soon enough to see the stranger attached to the aforementioned hands back on his own boat. The two exchange cautious but pleasant words, and much is revealed about the world. The stranger alludes to smokers, slavers, and an atoll outpost nearby. Costner mentions the code of the drifters, and refers to their world as “Waterworld”.
They notice that a small band of smokers, the pirates/raiders of this world, are approaching, and the stranger chooses this moment to reveal that he has stolen Costner’s limes. Why would he think that would be a good idea? Wouldn’t he prefer every possible ally in a confrontation against the smokers?
Costner, now pissed, reveals the true potential of his trimaran. Like a transformer, hatches open, machines buzz to life, and previously hidden sails and cables appear and give his ship extra speed and maneuverability. Now easily able to outrun the smokers on the seadoos, he intentionally steers toward the thieving drifter’s comparatively novice sailcraft, and runs it over, destroying the mast with one of the steel crossbeams of his trimaran. (I love the word “trimaran”… so fun to say. No, I had no idea what the boat was called until I looked it up on Wikipedia). The smokers board the immobile drifter’s small ship and have their way with him – that’s what you get for putting your fingers on Costner’s limes without permission.
You may be wondering why I walked you through that entire opening sequence, but I wanted to point out how this film does right what so many do wrong. In a very short opening sequence, and within a single scene, the film has successfully established the setting, its circumstances, and the factions operating within it. I am completely oriented and immersed with the world of the film, and we’re barely five minutes in. Bravo!
Costner, as the unnamed mariner, has been criticized as delivering a flat performance, and while this may be the case, I choose to believe that the flatness is actually an aspect of the mariner character, and in that regard, I find it very effective. After all, not every antihero has to be Ashley Williams.
The atoll and its denizens, while not composed of award winning thespians, are done very well in the film. Cultural details that could easily have been ignored are explored and portrayed in abbreviated fashion to flesh out as much of the atoll culture as possible. The atoll is initially hesitant to allow the mariner entrance until he bribes them with a jar of dirt. Obviously, dirt would be a valuable substance in a world without dry land. During a scene with a banker, they equate the value of dirt to that of fresh water – also rare in a world of saltwater. Water, water everywhere…and only filtered pee to drink. [In the rare extended cut, it is mentioned that seawater can be filtered as well, but that is it harder on the filters. I’m honestly not sure how desalinization works, but I would assume one could desalinate seawater using simple distillation, but unfortunately this is never explored in the film.]
Mariner witnesses a funeral in which the atoll peasants dump the corpse of an old woman into a pit of thick, bubbling, yellow mud. They mention “recycling” her. What is this yellow mud? My first thought was that it was some kind of compost pit, possibly composed mostly of human excrement, since these people wouldn’t waste anything with compost potential. This would also explain what these people use as a fuel source. [Methane, that is, ala Bartertown’s pigs… “ass-gas-oline”, anyone?]
After cashing in his soil, he meets up with a circumstantially impossibly-attractive bartender named Helen (Jeanne Tripplehorn), and who we assume to be her inked up daughter, Enola (Tina Majorino). Both Tripplehorn and Majorino are perfect for their respective roles, with Majorino getting my vote as the second best character in the entire film.
While Costner buys a tomato plant to replace his lime tree, he is repeatedly pestered by a lion-maned alpha male who admires his flashy ski boots. This character, “Nord” (Gerard Murphy), is another great unsympathetic villain right out of a “Die Hard” script.
Costner turns down an offer to breed with a local youngster, inciting the locals to mob him. They can’t decide whether to kill him because he might be a spy, or because he’s a mutant with fish gills behind his ears. Helen and Enola live with a mad scientist caricature, and this movie’s Gyro, named Gregor (Michael Jeter)
who speaks in a heavy accent of no particular origin, and over-acts as if this were a stage play. Why would he have an accent, anyway? According to the mythos of the film, nobody even remembers that dry land ever existed, and the citizens of this atoll of likely lived here their entire lives, so why would people have different accents?
The next morning, the locals decide to “recycle” the mariner in the poo-pits, but before they dunk him, the smokers conveniently attack the atoll to steal its “go-juice” (this film’s “guzzoline”). The smokers are so similar to the raiders in “The Road Warrior” that I half expect Enola to slice Nord’s fingers off with a razor edged boomarang. The smokers are led by Humongous… no wait, I mean Deacon (the late, great Dennis Hopper), who is not only the greatest character in this movie, but one of the best villains in any post apocalyptic movie ever. One of the smoker ships boasts an anti-aircraft turret that makes short work of the atoll’s defensive walls, and Hopper states that they are there to steal the atoll’s go-juice. Could this be gasoline, or the methane from the pits? There are clearly machines at work in the atoll, but we are never explicitly shown what powers them. If it’s gasoline, where do they get it? I’m going to say it’s the methane from the pits – and if it’s not, then it should’ve been, because no other option makes sense within the context of the film.
During the battle, Gregor stumbles into some levers in his lab which starts an apparently irreversible inflation of a homemade hot air balloon. Nevermind that Gregor built this damn thing himself and should therefore understand it, but later in the film he is shown to have perfect control over the thing – still, he somehow can’t stop its ascension and abandons Helen and Enola while he makes he escape. Sorry ladies, I only have enough supplies for me… I mean I can’t control this crazy contraption!… that I built!
A flaming jetski lands in one of the compost pits, setting it alight, revealing that, indeed, the substance is flammable. Luckily, it wasn’t the pit the mariner is busy drowning in. Helen frees the mariner in exchange for his promise to help them escape, and given the options, he agrees. The mariner is a total badass, throwing machetes, swinging on ropes, and swimming like a dolphin during the daring escape, also showing a flawless awareness of his ship, zipping around on cables and driving it with both hands and both feet and ducking the mast without even seeing it swinging behind him.
During the escape, the mariner even harpoons the smokers ship sporting the turret, and pulls it around to face the other smokers, destroying Deacon’s ship and causing him to lose an eye. You might think the mariner did this to help the survivors battling in the atoll, but I would argue that he was simply exhibiting another act of revenge, such as he did with the lime-yoinking drifter in the opening scene. The mariner is not a nice guy. In fact, he’s a cold, vengeful jerk – and makes that abundantly clear in the following scenes.
As he surveys the damage to the trimaran, he explains that his water filter is broken, and he must kill Enola so he and Helen can survive. You might think he’s joking – but nope, he’s serious. Helen offers her body to the mariner in exchange for Nola’s life, but after considering it long enough to get an eye full of tanned nekkidness, ultimately turns Helen down. [The extended cut reveals that he planned on selling them both to slavers. See? He’s an asshole.]
I have to take a moment to point out two details that pleased me: first, his pendant is made out of a piece of a circuit board. Second, and most importantly, the mariner’s weapon of choice in many scenes is a kukri. If you don’t know what a kukri is, it’s only the greatest type of machete that exists, and one of my absolute favorite post apocalyptic weapons. Buy one today.
While sexual awkwardness abounds above, Enola explores in the trimaran’s cabin, discovering a bunch of old world trinkets including a big box of crayons! Not the 24 pack, mind you, but the big papa 64 pack! Somehow, the box and its contents have survived hundreds of years in saltwater, but work well enough for Enola to draw pretty pictures all over the ship, eventually pissing the mariner off to the point that he actually does throw her overboard. Remember, this is our protagonist.
She can’t swim, which makes total sense for someone who grew up in a world composed entirely of water, so Helen jumps in to save her. The mariner, having lost the larger portion of his investment, swings ‘round to pick them up.
We are finally shown the smokers’ headquarters, which is essentially Bartertown’s underground. It turns out they are refining the oil leftover in the wreck of the Exxon Valdez, but they’ve only got a couple months left – thus all the raiding and pirating (straight from the pages of “The Road Warrior”).
Deacon tosses cigarettes to his workers as he drives around among them, but where are they getting the cigarettes, and is that why they’re called the smokers? Are they the only people that smoke in Waterworld? I’ve heard it said that they are called the smokers because of all the oil-burning machines they employ, but the cigarette thing can’t be a coincidence. Either way, they HAVE to be making them, because there’s no way they could survive underwater for so long, so where are they growing the tobacco?
The trimaran is spotted by a smoker airplane flown by the lead singer of Tenacious D, Jack Black, himself. (Yes, folks, that’s really him). Helen fires the tow-harpoon at the plane, scoring an
impossibly accurate hit (does she have prior experience with harpoon guns?), but the plane wraps the tow cable around the mast of the ship, battle-of-Hoth style, and causes even more damage before breaking the cable and escaping. For her effort, the mariner chops all of Helen’s hair off with the kukri (love that kukri) and decides to whack off Enola’s braids too, just in case anyone in the audience was actually starting to like him.
At this point, we run into the third best character in the movie: the insane drifer (Kim Coates). This drifer is apparently very Irish, though I’m now tabling my issues with the accents in this film. He offers to trade something possibly even more valuable than dirt or clean water for some alone time with Helen – Paper.
Oh, yes! Paaaaaper! Have ya ever seeeen paaaaper!?
He’s been saving it for a “special trade”. Costner obliges, and trades Helen’s self-respect for a couple of sheets of said paper. The mariner changes his mind and ends up killing the Irishman with the kukri. Damn, I love the kukri. Did he do this to save Helen’s dignity? Doubtful. The truth is, he probably just figured he could have the Irishman’s entire boat if he could goad him into a fight and kill him – why stop at two pages of paaaaaper?
They don’t find any food aboard his ship, and only after Helen and Enola are practically starving does he load up a double ended speargun and use himself as bait to catch a giant fish-monster. Could he do this all along? Why did he wait so long while they starved, and why did he want to trade the Irishman for food when he could’ve gotten it himself at any time? How are they getting fresh water if his filter is busted, anyway? Regardless, these giant, man-eating fish monsters are NEVER seen again in this movie.
The mariner eats the creature’s eye in another nice little survival-accurate detail. Other details I appreciated were how everyone in this world sports a deep tan, sun-lightened hair, and chapped lips. It’s all in the details, right? Maybe not, but they do help to make up for some of the gaping plot holes.
Suddenly, and without explanation, the mariner starts warming up to Nola. He teaches her to swim, and shares a very loving father/daughter moment with her in the water. While the “I think I’m done hating you.” > “What? Just like that?”
cinematography, music, and slow motion really work to accentuate the feeling of being in and under water in this scene, and I truly enjoy the scene, I felt that it came about a bit abruptly. I mean, this is the girl he has attempted to sell and kill up to this point, and suddenly he just accepts her as his own.
They come upon an outpost where people are auditioning for a “Weekend at Bernie’s” sequel, but the mariner suspects the charade, and looks through a periscope under his boat and sees the smokers hiding underwater. He avoids their fishing net by tilting his ship one way, and then the other, but why did it not get caught on the periscope he used not five minutes ago?
During the escape, he gets shot by Deacon, and Deacon tells Nord to employ the trackers to follow the mariner’s blood trail. What!? In the ocean!?
Helen reveals that Nola’s tattoo is the map to dry land, and that Nola is indeed from there, but the Mariner refuses to believe it, and shows Helen the sunken cities he raids using a homemade mini-sub. Apparently the pressure isn’t enough to kill them. I’m no scuba diver, but touching bottom on the deep end always made my skull hurt.
[Note: During this scene you can see possibly the only intentional or unintentional product placement in the film – a pepsi can on the sea floor.]
The trackers apparently employ sharks, because Nola sees two shark fins approach in the film’s attempt to explain how they tracked his blood trail through the ocean, but it’s not as though he just hung himself over the side and bled in the water continuously, is it? Even if he did, can you really train a shark to differentiate between all the various bloods in the water, and motivate them to follow one of them like a hound?
Helen and the Mariner arrive back at the boat find Deacon and Nord on their boat, but no mention of the trackers or their pet sharks. Helen and the Mariner escape by swimming underwater and the mariner uses his gills to breath into Helen’s mouth. Where are those sharks now, huh? Wouldn’t they still be in the water nearby? Though Deacon has SEEN the mariner’s gills, and likely realizes he’s just biding his time below the surface, they have what they want, and leave with Enola.
There’s nothing left of the trimaran, but mariner and Helen decide to have sex on the burning, jagged, rusted wreckage anyway. Afterall, what else does one do at such times? It is at this point in the movie that I rejoice, because every subsequent scene involving Deacon and Enola is pure gold.
The mariner goes below deck and reveals that he has an entire issue of national geographic, letting everyone know that he didn’t even need the Irishman’s measly two pages of paper, but was still more than willing to let Helen suffer for them. In the most Hand-of-God moment in the whole film, Gregor happens to find them in his hot air balloon. He does say he saw the smoke of the burning boat, but from how far away? Days away by sea? I don’t buy it. Also, he can control the balloon just fine now, which Helen must find a BIT irritating, right? He takes them to a small craft filled with the survivors of the atoll, and using a map that the mariner rescued from his boat, Gregor figures out the symbols on Nola’s back, and decides he needs her back to decipher the tattoo and find the way back to dry land. They also figure out that the Earth’s poles have shifted, swapping north and south. No one on the craft believes that cities used to exist at all, so apparently no one actually realizes that the earth has flooded. From this we can gather that it has been a very, very long time.
[Note: There is a scene immediately following this one that shows the survivor craft and Gregor’s balloon with a sunset sky…and land is clearly visible in the background. Oops.]
The mariner arrives at the smoker HQ and is able to approach in a convenient fog that disappears right after this scene. Deacon is busy lying to his followers and telling them he has deciphered the tattoo, and that he is leading them to dry land. He tosses out cans of SMEAT to his followers, which is interesting, because SPAM actually does have an indefinite shelf-life! (The more you know…)
Deacon apparently has an assortment of eye patches, but the chinstrap he wears while giving his speech is my favorite. Despite easily infiltrating the oil tanker, and effortlessly stopping all opposition, he decides to walk out on the deck alone to confront “I am not a crook! Well, maybe a little.”
Deacon and Nord on the balcony above, rather than trying to sneak up on them and catch them unaware. He places himself in a situation in which his only option is to do something drastic…so he drops a flare into the open oil tank, blowing up the entire ship.
Pretty risky move there, hero, don’t ya think? There was no way to gauge how big that explosion was going to be, or whether or not you’d kill yourself and/or Enola. Deacon is right, you are “a total freakin’ retard.” The following scene is a great action sequence, but another example of just how irresponsible the mariner is, and how careless he is with Enola’s fragile little life. As Deacon escapes with Enola in a plane, the mariner attaches a small anchor to a cable and hooks it to the passing plane, causing it to crash. Yes, he intentionally causes the plane to crash, knowing full well that Enola is IN THE PLANE. Points for thinking on your webbed feet, mariner, but how many times now have you almost killed Enola, either on purpose or with one of your careless stunts when you’re supposed to be SAVING her – twice now in the last ten minutes!
Gregor and the survivors rescue Enola and the mariner in a new, larger balloon that he must have fashioned while on the survivor craft…I guess. They haul them into the balloon as the ship explodes behind them (for reals this time). We’ve already established that the bad guy’s headquarters always explodes when good guys escape from them, so this should come as no surprise. What does come as a surprise is that after this group of people repeatedly risk their lives to save this little tattooed treasure-map, they LET HER SIT PRECARIOUSLY ON THE EDGE OF THE BALLOON BASKET, like a hundred feet up in the air!!!
So, when Deacon shoots the balloon and causes it to buck slightly, Enola falls RIGHT over the edge and all the way down into the water. The mariner bungee jumps down and snags her out of the water right in time for Deacon and two other smokers on jetskis to collide at full speed in the spot where she was treading water only seconds before. What was their plan, exactly, speeding toward her at breakneck speed, all at once? The jetskis explode as if they were filled with dynamite. Apparently, everything badguys make explodes – not just their hideouts.
As they float toward dry land in the balloon, the mariner sees that there is only a few drops of water left in their bottle, and instead of pouring it in Enola’s mouth, decides to pour it into his hand, wasting most of it as it drips between his fingers, and then rub his moist fingers across her lips. How sweet.
Unfortunately, they land the balloon on the island from “Jurassic Park”, though I think all the dinosaurs are extinct by this time – again. They find Nola’s parents’ skeletons and decide to bury them “under the dirt” because they think it was their way. How would they know? Yesterday, none of them even believed dry land existed, now they know their burial customs.
Mariner is freaked out by a passing herd of horses, but no one else seems to mind, despite the fact that they could very well be carnivores and not one of them, save Enola, have ever seen one before…let alone an entire herd of them stampeding. Eh, no biggie. Instead, let’s play in the water!
The mariner decides that scraping out a living on the ocean is better than living with his friends on the island, and takes an old wooden raft back out to sea. This may seem completely ridiculous, but in the extended version it is revealed that he wants to find others like him, and also send other humans in the direction of this dry land, so it makes a bit more sense. Why they left these details out of the final cut, I can’t imagine. One interesting detail: in the extended version, Enola gives him the name “Ulysses” before he leaves the island. As the screen fades to black, we hear the sound of the smoke monster somewhere on the island… (just kidding).
While Waterworld has some poor acting by the supporting cast, I feel that the central characters were very well cast, and there were enough memorable performances and characters that I didn’t mind the forgettable ones. Though the plot was largely stolen from the Mad Max trilogy, and had some gaping holes (especially in the edited version), the small details showed that the writers and producers put real thought into the project, and I applaud that. What really stands out about Waterworld, however, are the epic visuals and attention to detail in costume and set design. The world of the movie is so meticulously crafted that I can easily immerse myself in it, and in the end, that’s really all I ask from a good film – escapism.