In 1995, “Waterworld” was the film to beat…and beat up. With an extravagant production scope, a surefire leading man in Kevin Costner, and material dripping with summer popcorn thrills, box office expectations were elevated to an absurd degree. Then behind-the-scenes mishaps started to occur, entire sets (along with their subplots) sunk to the bottom of the ocean, and the budget went positively bananas. Suddenly a guaranteed summertime blockbuster turned into a cheap punchline for the media, who branded the film a disaster before it even opened – a tag that still incorrectly haunts the movie to this very day. “Waterworld” was doomed to fail no matter what type of movie showed up in theaters.
After all the ill will and seething defamation curdling the film’s legacy, what can I say? I really enjoy the picture.
In the far-off future, only a few remaining pockets of civilization remain after the polar ice caps have melted, flooding the planet, forcing the survivors to relocate to floating atolls. Hounding the peaceful are a violent gang known as The Smokers, lead by the wicked Deacon (Dennis Hopper), who patrol the waters on an endless search for chaos and the myth of dry land. The Mariner (Kevin Costner) is a trading recluse, searching the oceans for items of worth, stumbling upon young Enola (Tina Majorino) and her adoptive mother Helen (Jeanne Tripplehorn) as they barely escape the Smokers’ grip. With a special map to dry land tattooed to her back, Enola has become hot property, forcing the irritated Mariner into protection mode, while showing his new charges the harsh reality of a life lived on the water.
With chests fully puffed after their global success with 1991’s electric “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves,” star Costner and director Kevin Reynolds decided to test the adventure waters again with this admittedly blatant lift from the “Mad Max” series. Given a blank check to realize a three-dimensional world of oceanic desolation, the two Kevins dreamed big, taking the film to the actual deep blue sea for filming. Of course, what resulted is the stuff of primo Hollywood gossip, but the intended effect still reigns supreme in the finished feature. Strip away all the unsavory elements of the picture (real and imagined), and what’s left is a gorgeous prison of water; an arresting backdrop to a simple tale of heroes and villains. “Waterworld” never breaks character in this regard, with Reynolds employing his forbidding locales as a supporting character in the film. Mute “Waterworld,” and picture still dazzles; a waterlogged visual feast that few productions have ever attempted to achieve, and perhaps ever will.
Reynolds also has a dynamite way with action, focusing intensively on kinetic energy and Saturday matinee heroics (scored with aplomb by James Newton Howard) in a manner that snowballs the commotion agreeably. There’s a certain action architecture going on in the film that’s not rare, but exploited to thrilling results, featuring the cast running around elaborate floating sets (rich with post-apocalyptic detail) and various aquatic craft, with the nimble camera eager to survey the ensuing pyrotechnics. “Waterworld” is an awfully exciting picture when the plot heats up, underlining Reynolds’s talents as a visual choreographer and an able summer movie craftsman.
Reynolds’s vision is matched well by Costner in a rare screen appearance that doesn’t rely on his affable boyish charms. Playing a prickly fish/human hybrid (Mariner has developed gills and webbed feet, multiplying his loner mentality), Costner doesn’t overwhelm the film with a dogged performance of pure anti-hero clench. The actor remains surprisingly silent, letting his actions do the talking, hoping to convey Mariner’s concern with glances and quick movement. It’s an interesting performance from Costner that plays against expectation, but he’s routinely drowned out by the rest of the movie, especially Hopper, who, in 1995, was in the midst of gleefully destroying his credibility as an actor with unfiltered hammy acting. At least Costner knew how to read the temp of the movie and remain quiet.
Naturally, the complaints against the film have merit. Logic is not a friend to “Waterworld,” forcing those who demand exact science from their entertainment to run screaming from the picture as the plot stacks inconsistency and impossibility high. “Waterworld” is a sci-fi extravaganza, not even the least bit interested in reality, imaging a desperate world where cigarettes still hold their flavor centuries after production, basic crude oil tends to power everything, and vaguely defined monster fish rule the seas. It’s best to view the feature with an open mind, accepting the rolling inaccuracies as a cover charge for a spirited adventure. Taking this film to task for scientific elusiveness seems to miss the point of the intended experience.
The Extended Cut
In 1997, without much fanfare, “Waterworld” debuted on ABC sporting a new cut of the film, reportedly the original version Reynolds had in mind before post-production power plays knocked him out of the equation. The theatrical cut runs 136 minutes, the extended version clocks in at 177 minutes, generously reintroducing footage into the feature, turning a condensed film into the sprawling epic it was always intended to be.
“Waterworld” remains “Waterworld,” even in the longer configuration, but there’s new breathing room here, a chance for the material to explain itself instead of hustling from skirmish to skirmish. Extended time with Helen and the Mariner eases into eventual attraction; the way of life for The Smokers is observed in full (even boosting Jack Black’s brief appearance), making a few of the theatrical cut’s puzzlers seem less annoying; Enola’s backstory is more pronounced and thematically sound; life on the atoll is made even more miserable with some fresh moments of atmosphere; and a rather poetic, emotional conclusion is restored, also providing needed explanation on just how high those ocean waters go.
The downside to a pleasingly fattened narrative? Universal didn’t go out of their way to restore the movie for its DVD release, presenting the network television cut of the picture. Profanity has been dubbed over and a few special effect shots remain in their unfinished state, popping the bubble of fantasy to an unfortunate degree. It isn’t a patch job like the famously reworked “Dune” extended cut, but it’s far from ideal.
The “Waterworld” DVD package actually contains both cuts of the film, sure to please fans everywhere. With both versions sporting anamorphic widescreen transfers (1.85:1 aspect ratio), the result is a pleasing visual event on the theatrical side of the coin. Detail is in ample supply, with strong color preservation and crisp black detail.
The extended cut is another matter entirely, disappointingly riddled with EE, pocked with a few digital hiccups, and presenting an overall muddy picture with lousy detail. Perhaps this is the best the source material could provide, but the results are rotten, turning a sun-drenched, colorful film into a cruddy viewing event.
5.1 Dolby Digital sound mixes are bestowed to both cuts of the film, with the theatrical offering a stronger punch, as well as generous surround activity and bottom-heavy kick for the action sequences. The extended version sounds considerably thinner, often working through the same scenes with noticeably less depth. Dialogue is preserved accurately on both cuts, balanced well with scoring selections.
English SDH, French, and Spanish subtitles are included on both cuts.
The “Waterworld” Trailer is included on the theatrical DVD.
There are moments when the jet ski gymnastics of The Smokers can turn “Waterworld” into a glorified theme park stunt show (something the film eventually became at Universal Studios Hollywood), painful sequences where the acting reaches shrill levels of grandstanding, and times when the screenplay makes leaps it fails to land. Regardless of faults, I embrace “Waterworld” as the pure matinee escapism it was intended to be, readily devouring the sci-fi excitement both Reynolds and Costner are happy to dish up. The new extended cut only accentuates the film’s positives, broadening the material to dramatic satisfaction that was never available before. In either incarnation, “Waterworld” is a gas. However, in longer form, the picture is finally the full meal it was meant to be.