The 90s On Netflix: Waterworld (1995)
Mark Harrison | On 06, Apr 2018
Director: Kevin Reynolds
Cast: Kevin Costner, Dennis Hopper, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Tina Majorino
Watch Waterworld online in the UK: Netflix UK / Apple TV (iTunes) / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / Google Play
Do you remember the 1990s? Mark does. On Fridays, he flashes back to the golden decade of our childhood. From family-friendly films to blockbusters we shouldn’t have been watching, get ready for a monthly dose of nostalgia, as we put down our VHS tapes and find out whether the 90s on Netflix are still Live & Kicking.
At the time of its release, Waterworld was the most expensive film ever made. That it famously opens with star Kevin Costner weeing into a jerry-rigged water purification system and then drinking the output should speak to the weirdness of the end product.
The film takes place in a future long after the polar ice caps melted early in the 21st century, with humanity surviving on remote atolls posted across a worldwide ocean. While settlers dream of Dryland, many roam the seas, bartering, scavenging and avoiding jet-skiing pirates known as Smokers. Among these drifters is the Mariner (Costner), a mutant with gills and webbed feet, who sails across the world on his trimaran. However, when he helps young Enola (Tina Majorino) and her guardian, Helen (Jeanne Tripplehorn), escape from a formidable Smoker known as the Deacon (Dennis Hopper), he discovers that the girl might have a map to Dryland tattooed on her back, and must keep it – and her – safe from harm.
On Netflix, there’s a scene in the final season of Love where budding stuntman Chris goes for an audition at Universal Studios’ long-running Waterworld stunt show, and explains the movie to his friend Bertie thusly: “Think Mad Max, although instead of sand, water.” That sums up this blockbuster curio succinctly, given the film’s unpayable creative debt to The Road Warrior. The major difference between the two films is that Waterworld runs a good 45 minutes longer, and ran the budget to 45 times that of George Miller’s film. Production was strained by the pressures of shooting at sea, an overlong shooting schedule, and disagreements between Costner and director Kevin Reynolds, who had previously made a huge hit in the shape of 1991’s Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves (also available on Netflix UK, at the time of writing.)
These problems definitely show in the film – a spectacular dystopian actioner that rarely makes a lick of sense. You can’t say that they don’t make them like Waterworld any more – there are many more examples of tentpole movies with a clear idea of their world from a design point of view, but far less interest in coherent storytelling, but this might be the first big one. It’s a properly mad patchwork of different influences, which could have worked marvellously if only the script was there.
Instead, it’s both perfunctory and baggy, delivering endless exposition that does nothing, while glossing over some fairly glaring plotholes on the way to an abrupt end. The scripit’s two main traits coincide late in the film, as Enola delivers a flowery speech about how Costner’s man with no name is the best of the best and he’ll never give up, and boy, does the Mariner take his time fighting his way to her while it’s going on. Credited to Peter Rader and David Twohy (the latter of whom would go on to create the Riddick movies), the script was famously tweaked during production by Costner and by script-doctor-for-hire Joss Whedon.
Whedon reflected in 2001: “Waterworld was a good idea, and the script was the classic, ‘They have a good idea, then they write a generic script and don’t really care about the idea’ […] I was there basically taking notes from Costner, who was very nice, fine to work with, but he was not a writer. And he had written a bunch of stuff that they wouldn’t let their staff touch. So I was supposed to be there for a week, and I was there for seven weeks, and I accomplished nothing.”
But the movie’s stunt shows wouldn’t still be running in 2018 if the movie was entirely forgettable. The action is well staged and perfectly adaptable for that kind of theme park spectacle, and the sets and costumes are pretty great. Performance wise, the stand-out is Golden Raspberry award winner Dennis Hopper, which only goes to show how off the mark the Razzies have always been. He chews the scenery and washes it down with saltwater, and even as the most obviously Mad Max-inspired character, he’s the best thing on screen whenever he shows up.
Although it’s often remembered as a flop, Waterworld was ultimately a huge hit for Universal, thanks to a wrinkle in a then-ongoing takeover deal, which meant the studio’s new owners were only liable for $12m of the budget, and the enduring popularity of the tie-in stunt show these past 20 years, which provides more of a showcase for the stellar production design. It’s unmistakably a product of the mid-90s blockbuster mindset, but the movie remains an adventurous oddity; over 20 years on, even though Waterworld is bloated and bizarre, there’s something strangely captivating about it…
Next Time on The 90s On Netflix…
“I’m going to marry Mr. Bixler.” “You can’t marry a teacher, it’s against the law!”
Waterworld is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £9.99 monthly subscription.