$200m buys a lot of water
If it wasn't for its price tag ($200m, in case you hadn't heard), Waterworld would sail past audiences without anyone making much of a fuss. Clearly you would think long and hard before you gave Kevin Costner your lunch money if you wanted to eat that day, but at the point of sale, there in the auditorium, the film is a perfectly acceptable summer blockbuster. Heaven's Gate - Heaven's Watergate - it ain't.
There's something mildly old-fashioned about the project, and certainly about its packaging. There's nothing obviously destined for merchandising - Costner's fish-skin trousers won't be showing up in C&A any time soon. There isn't the usual insurance policy of crossover-stars-plus-cover-version on the soundtrack (Cher and the artist formerly known as Prince, say, duetting on "Take Me To the River"). There's just an awful lot of water. They bought a lot of water, they hired a lot of water, they computer-generated a lot of water.
The plot of Waterworld derives pretty directly from Mad Max, with sea standing in for sand: in a post-apocalyptic future where resources are strictly limited, a loner learns to take responsibility for a community and becomes human again. The bikers of Mad Max become thugs on jet-skis, who sometimes lie in ambush under water (don't try this at home), and there is a definite nod to Mad Max 2 in the character of an eccentric boffin with a flying machine.
But if Mad Max provides the situation, the visuals are in competition with The Big Blue (underwater lyricism) and The Abyss (underwater excitement). The director of Waterworld, Kevin Reynolds, can't compete in either category. For lyricism he gives us a big bulgy setting sun, or a sail silhouetted against the enormous moon. When the hero gives a swimming lesson, and splashes about busily bonding with a child, we're treated to some very commonplace slow motion. Reynolds is better at action sequences, but still there isn't a single memorable set piece of suspense in Waterworld (of which there were several in The Abyss).
Even the film's one truly romantic scene is inspired by The Abyss: the hero, who has gills, tells the heroine at a moment of underwater crisis "I'll breathe for us both", and the two of them explore the not so hidden eroticism of mouth-to-mouth. He gives her the French kiss of life. It's an effective moment, but without the sheer strangeness of the sequence in The Abyss where the rat, much to its surprise, starts breathing water, or the intensity of the one where the hero saves his estranged wife's life by letting her systems shut down in freezing water, and resuscitating her later when there's some air available for her to breathe.
The undoing of The Abyss, of course, was its New Age theme of redemption by aliens, and there's none of that in Waterworld. The redemption on offer is absolutely standard Hollywood healing. The Mariner (Costner) starts off as a sort of Scrooge of the Sea, strongly resenting the claims on him of two people whose lives he has saved, a sparky girl (Tina Majorino) and her guardian (Jeanne Tripplehorn). But all it takes is for the Mariner to find a drawing that the girl has done, showing three stick people holding hands, and the nuclear family is back in business.
Kevin Costner isn't a particularly endearing performer, and in some ways seems better suited to life before bonding, throwing the little girl briskly overboard at one point, using an oar to beat her guardian over the head, with commendable lack of fuss, when she pulls a weapon on him. In any case, his conversion to family values is pitched very oddly by the film, played almost for laughs. In the Mariner's climactic confrontation with the villainous Deacon (Dennis Hopper), audiences may find themselves rooting for the baddie.
It must be well known by now that you can be sitting quietly at home working on your screenplay, and all you have to do is write a monster with two good lines of heartless dialogue, and there's Dennis Hopper knocking on your door, asking to play the part. The script of Waterworld by Peter Rader and David Twohy, may actually have more than two good lines for him. The Mariner doesn't have that many. He says, referring to the young girl, "She's my friend". The Deacon, wearing a Napoleonic hat and carrying a golf club, replies: "Golly gee, a single tear runs down my cheek. He'll die for his friend." And the Mariner can't come up with anything better than "If it comes to that". It's as if the screenwriters have been too lazy to make the hero's world-view emotionally affecting, and now they rely on us to oppose his enemy, rather than actually side with him.
But the shortcomings of Waterworld keep coming back to one thing: water. The sea may be thrilling to sail or surf, terrifying to be lost in, but visually it's more soothing than anything else, when it's as temperate and blue, as calm and warm and available for contemplation as what the film shows us. There is a sense in which the sea is a desert, so that a man on a raft in mid-ocean is as surely doomed as a man in mid-Sahara, but it's a subtle desert, a sparkling desert, and the film fails to convey its inhospitable side.
What the mind remembers of the film is simply water, and everything else - the action, the romance, the pseudo-green politics, the strenuous special effects - amounts to words written on water. Watching Waterworld is more like a couple of hours in a flotation tank than a white-knuckle roller coaster ride.
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