Its name has become synonymous with overambition and box office disappointment, sold by Universal Pictures as the must-see action movie of the summer of 1995 whose swelling budget accompanied by rumours of on-set disagreements between director and star had contemporary journalists circling like sharks scenting blood, to some minds dooming the film before release; almost a quarter of a century on, did Waterworld deserve its premature burial at sea?
Restored from the original film elements for a three disc Blu-ray box set by Arrow featuring three different cuts of the film, the theatrical, the extended US television cut, about forty minutes longer, and the “Ulysses” cut prepared exclusively for the European market with reinstated censored shots and dialogue, it is time to wash the slate clean and examine what lies beneath.
Eventually a mega-budget project reuniting Kevin Costner with Kevin Reynolds, his director on Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Waterworld was conceived by original screenwriter Peter Rader as “a low-budget Mad Max rip-off” whose unique selling point was that it was to be set principally on water, an eco-fable of a future Earth after the ice caps have melted for reasons unknown, the details lost to history when civilisation drowned.
The project escalating during the long gestation period, it was taken over by Universal and the scope expanded, the script rewritten by Riddick‘s David Twohy with uncredited but obvious later additions by Joss Whedon, vast floating sets were built and a three-hulled boat customised for Costner’s Mariner, the sails painted to appear as though they were made of patchwork and Costner learning over a period of weeks how to sail it apparently solo with automated controls.
Icthyus Sapiens, a mutated man of the sea who scavenges what he can from the ocean and trades for what he cannot with fertile dirt scooped from the sea bed and artifacts from the earlier civilisation, the purpose of many a mystery without context, the Mariner lives entirely on the waves, self-sufficient and untrusting of those whom he encounters in his migratory life.
There are others who live like him on small boats, there are those who have formed larger communities on the constructed floating atolls, the film’s most impressive set, formed from eight linked sections floating off the coast of Hawaii and the size of a football stadium, and there are the Smokers, marauders who kill and take what they want, led by the psychotic Deacon, played by legendary Hollywood maverick Dennis Hopper.
The atoll where he hopes to trade attacked by the Smokers, the Mariner escapes aboard his trimaran with Helen and the child Enola (Criminal Minds‘ Jeanne Tripplehorn and Veronica Mars‘ Tina Majorino, only nine years old at the time of filming), unwanted passengers who are an intrusion into his solitary life but who may hold a clue to the location of the semi-mythical Dryland.
Accompanied by an archive “making of” feature, generic to the point of painful and totally failing to convey the scope of Waterworld, more insightful into both the production and the problems is the feature-length documentary Maelstrom in which many of the creatives discuss the film through conception, pre-production, shooting and release; also included is a short piece considering the history of post-apocalyptic cinema, both those popular and well-regarded and the more obscure but deserving of attention.
In an age when the vast majority of cinematic special effects are created digitally in post-production, often defying physics and common sense, the achievement of Waterworld cannot be underestimated; there is model work, for example the submerged city and the exterior of the Smoker base Deez, the rusting hulk of the tanker Exxon Valdez, there is some digital water, the first of its kind, but the principal locations were built full scale and fully operational, the stunts and action performed and captured live and on-camera.
Occasionally spectacular, Waterworld is best appreciated with an understanding of the undertaking, shot almost entirely on unforgiving and unpredictable water, often far from shore in order to obtain open skylines, at the mercy of weather, cast and crew suffering from seasickness, unable to even fix the cameras for a static shot as the whole bobbed up and down on the rolling sea, complexities and challenges which were likely lost on the contemporary audience who simply saw the finished product.
Boiled down to little more than the original premise of Mad Max at sea which at some times is more akin to Wacky Races, in a post-Fury Road world, is that enough? Despite an occasional shift towards a tone of adventure more associated with Indiana Jones, Costner’s Mariner is as cold and unforgiving as the sea, making no attempt to endear himself to Helen, Enola; he is not an easy point of entry for the audience, Costner’s reserve accentuated when faced with Hopper’s overacting.
With little exposition given other than the melting of the ice caps of the Universal logo, narratively atypical for the time but more common now, the theatrical cut emphasises the action at the expense of the sparse characters and it is the “Ulysses” cut which should be taken as the definitive, the slower pacing allowing for moments of quiet introspection which balance the explosions, allowing the characters the chance to breathe the sea air and reveal themselves as warm people in an ocean endless and blue.