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Plotopsy Podcast #27 – Waterworld

Waterworld

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Waterworld

Waterworld

waterworld1

Today, I’m going to take a look at one of the most notoriously expensive films of all time: 1995’s Waterworld.

The plot of Waterworld is summarized on IMDb as follows:

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 woman and a young girl try to find dry land.

Waterworld was directed by Kevin Reynolds, who also helmed Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Tristan + Isolde, and 2002’s incarnation of The Count of Monte Cristo.

The film’s screenplay was ultimately credited to two individuals: David Twohy, who provided screenplays for Critters 2, Pitch Black, and Riddick, and Peter Rader, who went on to direct a handful of episodes of Dog Whisperer With Cesar Millan. However, apparently, the screenplay for Waterworld went through 36 different drafts and 6 different writers, including Joss Whedon, who spent much of the 1990s as a script doctor.

The cast for Waterworld included Kevin Costner (Mr. Brooks, Dances With Wolves), Dennis Hopper (Super Mario Bros, Space Truckers, Speed, True Romance), Jeanne Tripplehorn (Basic Instinct, The Firm), and Sean Whalen (Twister, The People Behind The Stairs).

waterworld3The cinematographer for the film was Dean Semler, who also shot 2012, The Alamo, Stealth, Last Action Hero, Super Mario Bros, The Road Warrior, and Razorback

The credited editor for Waterworld was Peter Boyle, who has shot such movies as 1408, The Hours, The Postman, and the 2011 remake of The Thing.

The music for the film was provided by acclaimed film composer James Newton Howard, whose extensive list of credits includes Green Lantern, Nightcrawler, The Last Airbender, The Happening, The Dark Knight, Michael Clayton, and The Sixth Sense.

Kevin Costner apparently insisted on having Reynolds direct in order to be involved with the production. In contrast, the studio reportedly wanted Robert Zemekis for the director’s chair.

Interestingly, Reynolds ultimately walked off late into the production, specifically due to issues with Costner. He was quoted as saying that:

“Kevin {Costner} should only star in movies he directs. That way he can work with his favorite actor and favorite director.”

At the time of the movie’s filming, Waterworld was the most expensive movie ever produced. Though the record was broken only a few years later by Titanic, the cost of the film created a bit of a media frenzy. The ever-inflating production budget earned the film the nicknames of “Kevin’s Gate” and “Fishtar” by journalists and speculators, references the immense flops Heaven’s Gate and Ishtar.

One of the most costly aspects of the film was its primary set:  a massive floating rig constructed for the shooting in Hawaii, which apparently took up all the available steel on the islands, and then some. Despite its meticulous and expensive design, there were no bathrooms on the massive set, which meant that cast and crew had to be constantly ferried to the mainland.

Prior to Waterworld becoming a massively-budgeted monster of a production, Roger Corman was initially interested in making a low budget version for less than $3 million, which might have been a more natural fit for the material. However, once he heard more about the vision, he correctly predicted that the budget would massively inflate.

waterworld2Ultimately, the production budget for Waterworld landed at $175 million, on which it took in a worldwide lifetime theatrical gross of $264 million, though most of that came in from international markets. Ultimately, it made a profit over time after video sales and rentals clocked in, despite its high budget and less-than-expected revenue.

Waterworld has received mixed-to-negative reviews over the years. It currently holds an IMDb user rating of 6.1/10, along with Rotten Tomatoes scores of 42% from critics and 43% from audiences.

When it comes to Waterworld, I think it has always been a bit hard to look at in an objective vacuum. The mass publicity around its budget and problematic production is impossible to look beyond for many, and it colors almost every aspect of the film. Basically, the well was poisoned by rumors and negative anticipation before the movie was even cut together.

One of the aspects of the movie that got the most flak from tabloids and critics was the elaborate, floating Hawaii set. For what it is worth, I actually think it looks pretty damn cool: despite the high price tag, I think they got what they paid for. Honestly, it is kind of hard to imagine what the movie would have looked like without it. The production probably shouldn’t have gotten the greenlight to start with because of the potential costs, but it is kind of fascinating that this set got built, and the movie got made.

Another thing that is often the butt of jokes about Waterworld is Kevin Costner’s “Mariner” character design: notably, the presence of gills. Personally, I don’t think they look bad, and the concept makes plenty of sense for the setting, so I’ve never understood the issue people take with it. Admittedly, the racial correlations with Costner being shunned by other humans is a bit heavy-handed and unnecessary, but it wasn’t ultimately terribly distracting.

The most infamous sequence of Waterworld is by far the opening, in which Costner is shown going through the process of reclaiming water from his urine. While the sequence is a bit odd, it does establish a few important things that are important later in the movie. First, fresh water is immensely scarce, to the point that urine reclamation is commonplace. Secondly, it establishes that Costner is a bit of an inventive tinkerer: the reclamation unit is clearly hand crafted and cobbled together, and foreshadows some more crucial inventions and innovations that pop up later in the flick. Last but not least, this sequence eases the audience into what “business as usual” looks like in this outlandish setting. Xenophobia and mistrust is high, resources are scare, and boats are sort of personal bubbles, where the minutiae of life still carry on.

Dennis Hopper, as you would expect, is absolutely wonderful as a scenery-chewing villain. This was always one of his more natural strong suits in movies, particularly later in his career, and I feel like it saved more than a few movies with his crazed performances. Costner, on the other hand, is just awful in this movie. He straight-up flubs the deliveries on a number of lines, and just seem off-balance and totally a-charismatic throughout the film. His stoic manner and often dickish behavior to his friends makes it even harder to get behind him as the lead, which is probably more of a writing issue than a performance problem.

Speaking of which, there is some really bad dialogue in Waterworld, and the writing is almost certainly the weakest link in a production with its fair share of weak links. The frequent references to the title of the movie (“Nothing’s free in Waterworld”) stick out like dramatically inflamed thumbs, and a number of the actors seem to struggle with their lines as they are written. For as much time and money went in to the sets, effects, and actors, you would think that the producers would have made damn sure that the screenplay was strong, regardless of how much work it took. My guess is that they eventually suffered from fatigue from the numerous rewrites, and settled for a version of the screenplay that wasn’t quite fit to shoot, and put the pressure on the director to figure things out on set.

Nowadays, I think that people for the most part look back on Waterworld positively, or least not as negatively as it was initially received. Kevin Costner made far worse movies during the 1990s that lack the charming aspects or ambitious vision of Waterworld, but this flick was definitely the big, easy target at the time.

Overall, I think that Waterworld is a real mixed bag of a movie. It is poorly paced, laden with bad dialogue, and has some unnecessary and uneven comic relief sprinkled throughout. However, it also has a cool vision behind it, some fun set piece moments, a delightfully hammy Dennis Hopper, and a nifty post-apocalyptic production design. I’d recommend giving it a shot if you either haven’t seen it, or don’t recall the last time you saw it. It might just be worth your while.