Yes, yes, and yes. I’m very aware that this criticism has been levied against yours truly. Honestly, none of you who’ve let it slip in this space or in emails to SciFiHistory.Net were even among the very first to chastise me in such a way. Over the years, many friends and a few family members have remarked on and off about my tastes, preferences, and cinematic nihilism. The only defense I’ve ever mustered against such an onslaught is to say, simply, that – like all of you – I know what I like, and I like what I know. When I see it, I champion it, and I’m unashamed to admit to liking a whole library of releases chiefly because they achieve something on a level that I can appreciate. That’s all I look for in any picture, and I’ve long ago realized that it’s best for me to let that sleeping dog lie.
Hate me if you must, but I’ll always remain true to my word.
If there is any subset of pictures that I have gone a bit easy on in my decades of writing about films, then it would easily and most arguably be genre entries – SciFi, Horror, and Fantasy – that all lean a bit heavily with an emphasis on Fantasy. Pure Horror? Well, what can I say? It rarely scares me. Hard Science Fiction – as much as it pains you to read this – kinda/sorta leaves me a bit cold more often than not, often void of what I see as an authentic human voice with which to spin the tale. Call it schmaltz – call it camp – call it cheese – but, whatever you call it, I’m usually willing to give it a free pass critically so long as it doesn’t corrupt the intrinsic nature of the longer story. It has to work for this world as constructed, and I’m OK with that.
All of this brings me to the flick that kinda/sorta served as one giant blemish on the career of Hollywood juggernaut Kevin Costner: 1995’s Waterworld was deluged with some of the wickedest criticism imaginable upon its original theatrical release. (I can assure you that it was, kids, as I was there, reading each and every bit of it along the way.) Some of it? Well, OK, some of it was legitimate. Some of it was little more than piling on, as folks in the trade publications even back then tended to like chirping when they saw what they perceived as a total catastrophe. Still, I’d argue that – as about as pure a genre film through and through that’s ever been made – Waterworld never deserved the measure of disdain it was given at the time, and I’m using this post today to try to set things right with the humblest explanation I can offer.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters. If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last few paragraphs for the final assessment. If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
“In a future where the polar ice-caps have melted and Earth is almost entirely submerged, a mutated mariner fights starvation and outlaw ‘smokers,’ and reluctantly helps a women and a young girl try to find dry land.”
Flights of fancy were rarely – if ever – meant to change the world. While they might have been conceived by authors or filmmakers intending to deliver some message of hope or progress, the common denominator to all of those projects is that – first and foremost – they meant to entertain. Educating an audience is admirable, but Fantasy as a narrative construct heavily implies that none of this is real anyway, and that’s why I think serious storytellers tend to avoid using it as a tool for social change.
So … anyone arguing that Waterworld is – first and foremost – a film preaching about an impending climate disaster is sadly mistaken.
In fact, all the Kevin Reynolds-directed film does is use the mechanics of the polar icecaps melting as a device with which to create this particular universe. It is a world of endless water. Our planet has apparently become one big ocean from sea to shining sea. Nothing else in the script – from the players, the circumstances, or the predicament – comments on our world-at-large in any substantive way. Even an environmental disaster linked to the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil tanker is largely the stuff of comic effect here, and I challenge anyone who thinks its inclusion here was meant to inspire global action to put-up-or-shut-up. Yes, there may be the sporadic quips in the screenplay that might produce either a bit of thought on our part leading to a modest reflection on the current state of affairs, but at this point in the fictional universe absolutely nothing can be done to reverse mankind’s fate, nor is there any promise that this dire fate awaits each of us if we ignore the prognostications.
In the same way that the Mad Max series of motion pictures what was left of our world well after the Apocalypse was waged (and lost), Waterworld simply sets these people and their events in a context and concludes, “OK, you folks who are left can have at it!”
The script is credited to Peter Rader (who maintains an incredibly slim IMDB.com resume given the pedigree one would expect for a Costner vehicle) and David Twohy. Twohy – for those who’ve never heard the name – has long been affiliated with Science Fiction and Fantasy, having penned scripts for such properties as Warlock (1989), The Arrival (1996), and all the stuff that is the cinematic Riddick universe. My suspicion here is that, perhaps, Rader’s first draft was likely reworked by Twohy – though I could be wrong – as I think his background certainly suggests the experience necessary to give Waterworld its foundation. Whatever the case may be and regardless of whose contributions belong to whom, the flick was clearly meant to be a visual spectacle of good versus evil on the high seas of tomorrow and not some Hollywood message picture rolled out during awards season.
But … at this point in his professional career, Costner and his star potential had lost a good deal of its luster.
Indeed, Waterworld is a pretty far cry from the director’s 1990 pinnacle: Dances With Wolves clearly elevated his status about as high as it could go in all of Tinseltown, and – only half a decade later – it was still the stuff of legend upon which the actor and those who followed him were likely banking their success upon. After Wolves, Costner headlined the summer blockbuster Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves (1991), and even that was released the same year as the critically-lauded JFK that came out under the stewardship of director Oliver Stone. In 1992, the actor joined hands with no less than superstar Whitney Houston aboard The Bodyguard, an action/romance that continues to find fans decades after its initial release. To be fair, there were a few other features in there, but – in my humble opinion – none of these releases prepared the world of Hollywood to embrace Costner as an emerging star in the world of … Science Fiction?
If you’re reading this, then perhaps we can agree on one thing? You – like me – are a fan of SciFi. You’re tantalized by the good and the bad of it. Hollywood and all of its members most decidedly are not fans of SciFi. It’s an inferior species of film. It’s a cheap light show meant to entertain lesser people. This doesn’t mean that it can’t be well made because even the industry craftsmen and women deserve to have work and a chance for acclaim; but these projects are still considered beneath the scope of serious actors and actresses. No one – and I do mean no one in Hollywood – is clamoring for the chance to be rendered blue in James Cameron’s next Avatar travelogue, and this is because it’s just something they wouldn’t be caught dead in.
This couldn’t succeed. This film – this Waterworld – couldn’t become the norm. Otherwise, each and every one of them might run the risk of having to sacrifice their pride and careers in some like-minded picture. Keep in mind that industry veterans are always on the lookout for the next big craze – Star Wars launched a trend in the late 1970’s – and what if Costner’s vanity project did the same? Was Sandworld just waiting to be greenlit? What about Fireworld? What about Treeworld, Grassworld, and Gasworld? All of these would require big name talent – those who had achieved the cultural acclaim that Costner had – so, as one might imagine, this couldn’t happen. Not at any cost.
So … Hollywood circled the wagons.
Rather than defend one of its own – rather than see the merits in a formulaic adventure yarn headlined by an A-List talent – they saw blood in the water. (Yes, pun intended.) It wasn’t enough to merely destroy Waterworld’s chance at launching a new franchise; they needed this picture to fade away into the dustbin of film history as a colossal commercial failure. If it had any fans, then they were to be laughed at and ostracized, much like those who claim to see UFOs or experience abductions or hear the voice of God. Any who supported Waterworld would be the subject of ridicule, and – thus – the film opened to a dismal box office with almost zero prospects that it would gain its sea legs over time.
Of course, I can’t prove any of this; and I offer it up to you – humble readers – entirely of my own opinion. I would encourage those of you who like history to go back and read some of the trade reports into the film – to go back and even watch video reviews of that era on YouTube.com and elsewhere. If you’re watching closely, then you might see – in small ways, perhaps none too obvious – an entire group of people secretly hoping to tank the picture, to tell you that it isn’t worth your time and attention. While I’m not here to defend Waterworld’s every scene – having watched it several times, I assure you that there are sequences that should’ve been trimmed as well as plenty of unanswered questions about just how this place really works logically – but it’s a far, far cry from worst thing ever committed to film.
Waterworld (1995) was produced by Universal Pictures, Gordon Company, Davis Entertainment, and Licht/Mueller Film Corporation. DVD distribution (for this particular release) is being coordinated by the fine folks at Arrow Films. As for the technical specifications? Though I’m no trained video expert, I thought the sights and sounds to this Ultra HD 4K rendering were exceptionally inviting. As for the special features? Well – to be blunt – there’s nothing new here as all have been essentially ported over from earlier releases of the film; so fans interested in those specifics are encouraged to scour the net as those insights are already out there.
Sorry, folks, but I’ve never had an issue with admitting that I’m a fan of Waterworld. I’ll admit that it ain’t Shakespeare. I’ll even concede that it’s far from Kevin Costner’s best work. Hell, I’ll even grant you that – because it’s entirely formulaic, about as much as a genre project can be – it isn’t going to be for everyone. But for those of us who appreciate this kind of world-building along with the commitment to seeing something through despite a veritable ocean of reported obstacles (snicker snicker), it works just fine. Warts and all.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Arrow Films provided me with a complimentary screening copy of Waterworld (1995) Ultra HD 4K Blu-ray by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review. Their contribution to me in no way, shape, or form influenced my opinion of it.