It’s a harsh world out there, with all that water. The first thing that this movie wants you to know is that Kevin Costner is the badass hero. He has the Coolest Boat, and he also knows the Ways of the World. For example, the first thing we see is his ass, very virile, while he drinks his own piss and waters a lemon tree on his boat with his own spit. Yes, this is a Kevin Costner film, long and heavy and him the lone hero.
Today, Waterworld (1995) is mostly known for being an incredibly expensive failure, much like the reputation of Cutthroat Island (1995) from the same year. Both films were so expensive because they made heavily use of elaborate sets, and that is something that today many viewers actually praise in these films, so not all effort was lost. Much of the budget was used for building a giant floating set, what today would be created by computerized effects.
The film is heavily influenced by Mad Max and The Road Warrior, which were decidedly cheaper. The pirates in this film (the “smokers” because they have oil) have the same grungy, makeshift vehicles and a wild assortment of masks, goggles and torn-up clothes. Costner is of course in the same situation as Max: trying to make a living, but ends up embroiled in piratical activities and has a woman and child to save. In The Road Warrior, there was an odd aboriginal kid and here we have a little girl with a tattooed map on her back.
The story is thus quite standard, and it has some esoteric elements that might or might not work. Costner (I don’t think we ever hear his name) has evolved gills and can swim like a dolphin. It’s meant to make him “special”, but the story is quite an ego trip for him. Also, the fact that in the first hour he gets proposed sex more than once, leads me to believe that this is some kind of vanity project for Costner. There’s also a rather lame plot of a prophecy that the tattooed map on little Enola’s back will lead to the mythical Drylands.
The best thing about Waterworld is Dennis Hopper as one-eyed pirate king. And isn’t it always the case that the villains are the best part of these kind of movies? It was always so in the Mad Max series. Costner’s character is quite unlikable, too. He’s a brutish sourpuss and only knows how to scowl. And the story itself doesn’t offer much besides the occasional explosion. Emotionally it is flat as a plank, and all the people and vehicles are uniformly grey and brown.
But it isn’t all bad. There are some exciting action pieces and the occasional striking overview shot. As a regular action movie it offers quite a lot of fun, actually. But for this to be some sort of stunning epic, it is too derivative and badly acted.