Cinophile: WATERWORLD

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[column size=one_half position=first ]In defense of its big flop reputation, Waterworld is not one of the worst movies ever made. It’s one of the most awesome.

How does that saying go? Never act with children or animals. But the golden rule remains: don’t film on water. Even Steven Spielberg said it was a bad idea – and he managed to make some money out of his ordeal. Other directors have not been so lucky, such as James Cameron and his much-loved flop The Abyss.

But Waterworld stands as the ultimate aquatic crater. It ran way over budget and pundits were already predicting doom for the film before it was even released. It may have been a bit of anti-Kevin Costner sentiment helping drive that, but even when audiences finally saw it they largely stayed away and at the domestic box office Waterworld failed to make back a third of its total budget. International earnings were a bit better, but not enough to save this floundering flagpole.

Yet today it is a real shame that Waterworld never got beyond treading water. It’s a bit of a sweeping epic and that rarest of film genre pieces: a post-apocalyptic world you’d want to hang around in, at least as a spectator. What could be called ‘Mad Max on Water,’ Waterworld takes place in the far future, on a planet Earth where the ice caps have melted and everyone left alive has to live floating on endless seas. There are rumours of land somewhere, but nobody has found it.

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Into this world a mysterious drifter goes about on his boat, trading rare artifacts that convince some he might know where land is. But he is a mutant and his ability to dive deep underwater helps him salvage more. The real key to land is a map on the back of a little girl, who along with her guardian end up being saved by the drifter. But hot on their heels are the Smokers, a gang of pirates led by the evil Deacon.

Even if you don’t like Kevin Costner (and after 3 Days To Kill who can blame you?), Waterworld is full of nice surprises. A lot of care went into the design, where artifacts from our era blend with clobbered-together gadgets, dramatic sets and great costumes. It is a pity Waterworld didn’t birth a sequel, taking us to the more interesting corners of this world.

Costner makes for a good lead, but the real winner is the late Dennis Hopper, playing his manic best as the head of the Smokers. If in hindsight Waterworld does have a problem, it’s a musical score that feels all too much like something meant for a Disney film or family blockbuster. But Waterworld was supposed to be that, at least by the intentions of the studio: a PG hit for the summer. This was a sad misuse of a great premise and was probably the main reason why it flopped: at its core this movie is much closer to a Mad Max than Pirates of the Caribbean.

But mean-faced Kevin Costner is no Jack Sparrow. He’s tougher than that, so is the world he lives in – with floating settlements, sunken cities, slavers, bandits and giant sea monsters. It’s a pity that Waterworld flopped, but it’s even sadder that the stigma lingers.  A remake would not be a bad idea.

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Waterworld was a tough shoot, apparently not made any easier by lead star Kevin Costner. At the height of his fame, Costner was not making a lot of friends and the previous two years he even fought to derail Tombstone, the Wyatt Earp-themed movie that rivaled Costner’s own Wyatt Earp. Director Kevin Reynolds, who previously made Prince Of Thieves with Costner, apparently walked off set because of the actor’s constant fights with him, forcing Costner to finish the film. But perhaps Kevin was feeling the pressure: he had invested $22 million of his own money into Waterworld. Then again, he apparently drew a $14 million salary and stayed in a villa with its own servants.
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Gary Oldman, Gene Hackman and James Caan all turned down the role of the main antagonist, the Deacon. It’s a good thing too, because Dennis Hopper would step up to deliver one of his most memorable bad guys. The Deacon adds a lot of the film’s charisma and proves a nice counter to the rather bland hero, the Mariner. Hopper has gone on to say he enjoyed Waterworld and felt it flopped in the U.S. because of the name and the bad hype around it. To prove Hopper doesn’t say that about all of his movies, he’s no fan of Super Mario Bros.
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The magnificence of Waterworld’s failure is sometimes overstated, but not undeserved. It was not an all-out disaster as other films, yet a disaster nonetheless. When adjusting for inflation Waterworld cost as much and made as much domestically (US)  as John Carter. At $150 million ($230 million today) Waterworld was the most expensive movie ever produced. But its failure at the box office did not quite dampen appetites for big budgets. Two years later the unlikely Titanic would surpass Waterworld‘s budget, but then absolutely destroy the box office. Interesting side note: when adjusted for inflation Titanic‘s $200 million budget still surpasses the current record holder, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, which cost an estimated $300 million.

Cinophile is a weekly feature showcasing films that are strange, brilliant, bizarre and explains why we love the movies.

Last Updated: September 29, 2014

James

A total movie glutton, nothing is too bad or too obscure to watch, unless it’s something like The Human Centipede. If you enjoyed that, there is something wrong with you. But bless you anyway – even video nasties need love…

  • xdvd

    You know how to pick them. I love this movie too.

  • Kervyn Cloete

    Finally! Somebody around here backs up my love for this movie!

    • Really? Damnit, I may have to retract this feature… 🙂

  • Alien Emperor Trevor

    I like Waterworld, it’s aged pretty well too.

    • I forgot to mention that: yes, it has aged very well.

  • This movie deserves better, it’s got quite the cult following! I enjoyed it very much, still have a copy lying around somewhere.

    • Yeah, I think once the hate around it died down a lot of people could admit they enjoyed it. Perhaps a little like Prometheus.

      • I think prometheus was awesome. And the thought of prometeus two makes me all fuzzy inside.

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