Kevin Reynolds/ USA/ 1995/ 135 mins
Available on Blu-ray Mon 21 Jan 2019
It seems inconceivable now that Kevin Costner was once considered one of the most bankable names on the planet, but back in the early ’90s and fresh from the rollicking dark age japes of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Universal Pictures were persuaded to stump up $175 million for Waterworld confident of similar success. This mega-budget behemoth became one of those legendary cautionary tales that Hollywood execs would refer to in hushed tones, like Ishtar or Heaven’s Gate, but with a few decades worth of hindsight is now ripe for reappraisal. Is it the unalloyed disaster of lore, or is it something of a magnificent folly? The truth is somewhere in between.
Set in a post-apocalyptic future, undefined but at least several centuries hence, the world has completely flooded after the melting of the polar ice caps. What humanity is left resides in ramshackle ‘atolls’, floating communities cobbled together from salvaged materials. The Mariner (Costner), a mutant who can breathe underwater due to the possession of gills, becomes entangled with a prophesy inked into the back of a young girl (Tina Majorino) which is allegedly the path to the fabled ‘Dryland’. A group of pirates led by Dennis Hopper is also keen to get their hands on the girl, at any cost.
Waterworld is not a good film, but it is a wildly ambitious and eccentric tale, pumped full of ego, hubris and sheer demented persistence. The plot is wafer-thin yet stuffed like a goose liver with massive themes such as faith, survival and environmental concerns. It is the last of these that gives this strange adventure a modern resonance far beyond anything achieved on its release, without indulging in sermonising about the very plausible consequences depicted. It’s also both singular and derivative; like nothing you’ve seen yet briny with references – Mad Max, Peter Pan, Sergio Leone‘s spaghetti westerns – and it rushes past in a ludicrous, breathless wave. If the story or acting doesn’t grab you (and neither is likely to, Costner himself confusing blankness for steely taciturnity – Clint Eastwood he ain’t), then the production design will still take the breath away, while some of the busy action scenes are expertly staged and almost refreshingly coherent by modern standards.
Time has smoothed away some of the worst memories of Waterworld. It’s aged rather better than many of the CGI-driven behemoths since (although it’s difficult to see where all the money went, as the eternally jaw-dropping Jurassic Park was an economical $65m), and like many alleged disasters, it’s been bolstered by a stout cult defence over the years. It’s pretty much a vanity project for one of the more bafflingly popular superstars of the last 30 years, but there’s a certain admirable lunacy at work that deserves a wry salute. In a month that’s also given us the bizarre, eccentric muddle of Welcome to Marwen it’s great to revisit something that deviates from the cookie-cutter template and be be reminded that Hollywood will occasionally take interesting risks. It’s an overall failure, but an honourable one.