Two decades on Waterworld remains a mad, fascinating folly

A new restoration reveals the insane ambition of this bloated Kevin Costner vehicle.


Anton Bitel


After an altered version of the Universal ident shows the world’s continents receding slowly into the blue mass of the oceans, Waterworld launches us into a future where the polar icecaps have melted and the landmasses have been submerged. Here the entire world is one big body of water, and every man is an island.

Our protagonist’s particular island is his modified trimaran, which we first see in an aerial zoom that emphasises its extreme isolation in a sea of blue. On its deck, this ‘man with no name’, credited only as ‘the Mariner’ (and played by Kevin Costner), is first seen from behind as the low-angle camera tilts up his legs to his butt. If the shot appears to be taking full, objectifying advantage of Costner’s status as a sex symbol, the urine trickling between his legs serves to undermine any mainstream erotic appeal.

After collecting his urine in a jar, the Mariner puts it through a makeshift series of filters, and thirstily drinks the liquid that comes out the other end. He is a survivor, though he is running on empty, and this is true of the others he encounters, all recycling or stealing everything – even corpses – and gradually dying out for not only a lack of resources but also a surfeit of scavengers and merciless marauders. Such community as there is comprises floating ‘atolls’, bartering whatever goods come their way while trying in vain to keep trouble out, and the ‘Smokers’, a navy of petrol-headed, cigarette-coveting pirates led by the Deacon (Dennis Hopper) and based in the rusty wreckage of the Exxon Valdez.

This is the pioneering badlands of the Wild West, or the post-apocalyptic wastelands of The Road Warrior – except utterly aqueous – where a threadbare civilisation is beleaguered on all sides by murderous greed and animalistic individualism. The latter is embodied by the Mariner, a rugged loner who, owing to an amphibious mutation that has gifted him with working gills, is a literal fish out of water (or ‘ichthyosapien’), unable properly to integrate into the leftover dregs of human society.

What eventually humanises the Mariner is the (initially unwanted) company of Helen (Jeanne Tripplehorn) and her young ward Enola (Tina Majorino). The little girl – whose very name reverses ‘alone’ while also evoking the first aircraft to drop an atomic bomb – is a living, breathing MacGuffin with a potentially explosive payload on her back. For tattooed there is a cryptic map rumoured to show the way to the mythical ‘DryLand’, ensuring that everyone wants a pound of her flesh, and eventually driving the Mariner to make one last stand against the Smokers.

In Waterworld, the most unlikely items – ‘pure’ dirt, fresh water (or ‘hydro’), potted plants, paper – have assumed great value, but Enola, and the dream of a better life that her tattoo encapsulates, fast becomes the most valuable commodity in a world where terminal desperation has become the norm, and where solid ground is the ultimate utopian El Dorado.

Waterworld is a spectacular seaborne action adventure where the forces of civilisation and savagery meet at the seemingly endless horizon. This is not all that is endless about the film – its production, plagued by conflict between producer/star Costner and credited director Kevin Reynolds (who, frustrated with Costner’s constant interventions, surrendered the helm midway), was overlong (Costner himself was on set for 157 days) and went way over budget (escalating to $175 million). As an exercise in world-building, the film is exceptional, creating an innovative aqueous ecosystem in which all manner of ever more urgent ideas about global warming and environmental depletion can be floated.

Yet where the film falls flat is in its characterisation (from a screenplay written by David Twohy and Peter Rader, with mid-production rewrites – at Costner’s insistence – by Joss Whedon). That Costner’s antihero should be so fundamentally dislikable is entirely acceptable – after all, the Mariner’s arc makes him an eternal outsider, with his humanity only occasionally surfacing for breath – but that he should also be deadly dull is far less tolerable.

Hopper’s astonishing turns in the 1986 films River’s Edge and Blue Velvet served the dual purpose of showing what a complex, versatile villain he could be, and of sending his career down a path that would gradually milk that side of him dry. By the time he came to play the one-eyed antagonist in Waterworld, he had become both the go-to (bad) guy for unhinged devilry, and a mere parody of himself. And here, as though to make up for this landless world’s lack of livestock, Hopper provides more than enough ham for everyone.

So, at its time the most costly film ever made, Waterworld also feels like something of a folly, as expansive as it was expensive. The theatrical cut came in at an already epic 135 minutes, but this three-disc Arrow Blu-ray release comes with two additional (and longer) versions of the film: the extended cut for US television which came with an additional 40 minutes of footage, and which hilariously dubbed over any of the original’s bad language; and the so-called ‘Ulysses’ cut, which restores the censored dialogue.

This last, originally compiled as a bootleg ‘fan edit’, has here been restored in a new widescreen version from the original film elements. Both these extended versions will be welcomed as an archival treasure trove by completists, while unnecessarily prolonging the agony for anyone else. Enlarging upon this universe’s mythology just makes it wetter – and Peter Boyle, the editor of film’s theatrical version, understood all too well that less is more, and that the first cut, as they say, is the deepest one.

Waterworld failed to recoup the vastness of its budget at the box office, although home sales did – and still do – make it profitable. You would think that after the ordeal of this tortured production, Costner would know to steer clear of over-inflated post-apocalyptic dystopian allegories, yet only two years later he would produce, direct and star in The Postman.

Waterworld is released by Arrow Video on Blu-ray on three versions (the theatrical cut, the TV cut, the ‘Ulysses’ cut) over three collected discs, all restored from original film elements, on 21 January.

Published 14 Jan 2019

Tags: Dennis Hopper Kevin Costner

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