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25 Years Later: Waterworld

11 August 20 words: Miriam Blakemore-Hoy

Steady yourselves, there’s a storm on the horizon…The clouds are gathering for the 25th anniversary of one of cinematic history’s biggest flops. It's Mad Max crossed with Treasure Island. It’s Kevin Costner at the height of being Kevin Costner. It’s Dennis Hopper as a mad, underrated villainous pirate. Yep, you guessed it - it’s time to return to Waterworld.

Director: Kevin Reynolds
Starring: Kevin Costner, Dennis Hopper, Jeanne Tripplehorn
Running time: 135 minutes

Back in the heady nineties, $175 million was funnelled into this post-apocalyptic action drama. Watching it again in 2020, the concept seems pretty ahead of its time – the polar ice-caps have melted and the sea has risen, drowning cities and nations worldwide. Although the reason for this is barely touched on, there is a sense that it is because of humanity’s gross incompetence and negligence, that people now find themselves surviving on floating villages and solitary ships in the middle of a vast never-ending sea because of their ancestors’ irresponsibility. 

However, humanity doesn’t really seem to have learned much in the meantime. It’s a shark-eat-shark world out there. Whether it's battling with other lone sailors who steal all the fruit off your one shrivelled tree the minute you go diving, or the crazy villagers who’ve gone a bit mad from living on a floating commune and will kill you if you refuse to impregnate their daughter to save them from interbreeding, surviving ain’t easy. Could this be the reason why, at the start, our hero seems just as much of a villain as the villain himself?

None of that can save Waterworld from the something that’s missing

Costner’s Mariner spends most of his time committing such heroic actions as pimping out women in return for pieces of newspaper, or throwing young girls overboard because they steal his Crayola crayons. He seems hell bent on being the biggest asshole possible, before finding those pesky emotions towards the end and actually becoming likeable. Maybe Costner was channelling some of that in real life when he fell out with director Kevin Reynolds or when he ensconced himself in a private villa with his own butler, leaving the rest of the cast and crew to battle it out in condos that reached temperatures of 50°C. Who knows? He does have to contend with future racism that’s evolved beyond the colour of your skin to the shape of your toes, and the “smokers” – jet-ski fuelled petrolheads who’ll stop at nothing to destroy everyone else’s ships.

Yet despite the very shaky beginnings, the heart of the story finally gets going when the relationship between the Mariner and the little girl, Enola, starts to develop. Marked with a tattoo believed to lead to dry land, Enola is being hunted by anyone and everyone, and it is up to the Mariner to save her. Tina Majorino (who, incidentally, grew up to be Deb in Napoleon Dynamite) manages to bring some real spirit to the project, appearing to see something redeemable in the Mariner even when no-one else can, including the audience. With her bright blue eyes and her braided hair, she is perhaps the most iconic part of the film. 

Dennis Hopper is a joy to watch, and made me realise how much he has been missed the past few years - and Jeanne Tripplehorn is pretty decent too. But none of that can save Waterworld from the something that’s missing, that spark of action that never happens, or that detail in the story that never takes place. It’s a difficult one to verbalise. Could it simply be that the film can never properly leave behind the creeping realisation that when all’s said and done, it’s just…a wet fish?

Did you know? Whilst Waterworld was labelled a box office bomb upon release, it eventually became profitable for the studio as a result of revenue from home video sales and TV broadcast rights.

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