On July 28, 1995, Kevin Costner’s post-apocalyptic deep-dive Waterworld plunged into theaters near and far. Alas, it didn’t quite make the splash Universal might have hoped. While the film’s sinking bottom line is the stuff of Hollywood lore, in retrospect, the super-soaked movie now delivers everything one should hope for in a wild, dystopian epic — from premise to execution to payoff.
Looking back these 25 years later without any lingering expectations, upon my recent rewatch, I found Waterworld to be as fun as a water park on a hot sunny day (remember those?), and more prescient than ever before. Costner’s supposed folly puts a glistening shine on Mad Max’s end-of-times inanity while delivering something truly unique, which is ever more watchable now than you may remember.
OK, those are bold claims. I’m certainly not making the case for it being a perfect movie. Egos and budgets hurt the film’s legacy as much as its press cycle, and there are some definite tonal issues that you just have to go with while watching. But that’s half the fun, particularly when mad-as-a-hatter Dennis Hopper finally sails onto the scene as the patch-wearing future pirate captain, Deacon, and completely throws the movie in a zany new direction.
But that’s just part of the ride if you dive into the film with an open mind and no expectation of actual sense-making. You might just have a good time. But the film works on an even grander scale, too, as far as actual importance goes. It imagines a scenario that is incredibly intriguing, particularly to us 2020-dwelling folks watching the polar ice caps melt with an eye ever more watchful than the ball bearing Deacon tries to jerry-rig into his own cranium.
The film starts out with the bold narrative claim that the polar ice caps have melted, leaving the world covered in water, and dramatically noting that “those who survived have adapted to a new world.” And then, boom, it cuts to a wide shot of a gyroscopically redolent seafaring rig, and then closes in on Costner peeing in a container, and then dumping said pee into a steampunk contraption that turns it into drinking water. If you can’t adapt to a start like that, then you’re likely going to keep missing out on all the fun.
Whatever this mysterious pee-saver is up to, it’s obvious he’s got a keen mind for Rube Goldberg-type contraptions, and really strong lung power. Waterworld’s world unfurls like the giant, self-opening sail of our unnamed Mariner’s catamaran, as we’re immediately impressed by this silent but wet character’s independence, creativity, and chutzpah. Our first sense of this comes as he evades machine-gun-toting, dirty-Sea-Doo-riding “smokers” while getting perhaps too much revenge on the jerk who stole his hard-grown limes.
Soon, classic Costner with seashell earrings and algae-ridden ski boots takes his goods to trade at some sort of floating city, where they bury their dead in bubbling sludge. And what’s this trader got to offer? Dirt ... pure, sweet, more-precious-than-diamonds dirt, which he turns around for a tomato plant and some shelves. But when he turns down a local’s offer to impregnate his daughter on his way out of town, the town folks get suspicious, and MerCostner’s gills are exposed. Alas, the grimy locals don’t take too kindly to mutants, so they net him.
And the bananas plot just unfolds from there, with shelf-selling shopkeeper Helen (Jeanne Tripplehorn) and possibly clairvoyant Crayola-er Enola (Tina Majorino) — the prodigal child whose tattoo legendarily leads to dry land — helping free the Mariner and get away from a perfectly timed Smoker attack.
Granted, the not-quite-human and certainly socially awkward (abusive?) Mariner doesn’t exactly win audience members to his side when he threatens to throw the little one over to save drinking water. And things don’t really get better from there for MerCostner’s new shipmates, including an unfortunate and unwelcomed scimitar-knife haircut. But hey, this is a tough world, and you adapt or die.
Despite his unseemly lack of social skills, MerCostner eventually does come around, so much so that he and Helen eventually make out underwater. And he does risk life and gills to go save Enola when she’s hanging upside down on the biggest, most hole-ridden, Smoker-driven pirate ship in the history of booty collecting.
From start to finish, Waterworld’s steampunk vibe is super strong, but it really takes off when we get to see the home base of the bats*** bonkers Smokers, particularly those wearing plastic six-pack holders as haute couture. That vibe is established even before we meet one-eyed Hopper, in his most aargh-worthy, dread-pirating role to date, leading this navy of inbred cavemen (and some very unlucky women) across the wild 'n' pillaging seas. But it really hits the insane jackpot when Deacon drives around the ship, running over little Smokers while throwing cigarette butts to all his adoring, unshowered fans.
Indeed, there’s a lot of inventiveness that goes into not just thriving in this world, but creating weapons of war to take things away from those who dare thrive. And while the budget did notoriously balloon, you can certainly see where much of it went. From weaponry, to ships, to locales, to costumes, the whole thing looks like it should be an attraction at Universal Studios (oh wait, it is!).
But the real reason the film works, perhaps more now than ever, is that the premise is still wholly viable. Sadly, 25 years later, we’re facing an even graver climate crisis. Though people apparently didn’t learn Waterworld’s deadly environmental lessons the first time around, it’s still a really good starting point to think about what a worst-case ending for our current climate crisis looks like. If only everyone knew that one-eyed Hopper and his band of steampunk-Sea-Doo-ing freaks is what lies beyond the arctic ice, then perhaps we’d all recycle a bit more.
Are there misses that just seem a little too close? Sure! Are there plot holes you can float a barge through? Perhaps! Is the little girl really annoying? She is! Is Helen empowered? Not really! But it’s all part of the wild ride that is Waterworld, which may leave you feeling a little “land sickness” by the end of the wild adventure. But will it ever receive its just due? I’m not holding my breath.