Kevin Costner’s Waterworld: Overlooked or Underwater?
Kevin Costner and Kevin Reynolds reteamed for one of the most notorious blockbusters of the 1990s, Waterworld. We revisit the project.
This article contains spoilers for Waterworld and the original Planet Of The Apes.
“Waterworld was a good idea”, Joss Whedon told The AV Club back 2001. Go back to just after the release of Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves and The Bodyguard, that had made Kevin Costner the world’s biggest movie star who didn’t have to hold a gun to sell popcorn, and it sounded a great one.
Sure, it was always going to be ambitious. Shooting a major blockbuster at sea? What could possibly go wrong there? But Universal Pictures was confident enough, keen to work with Costner, and it fired the starting pistol and wrote its first check. By the time the film made it into cinemas in the summer of 1995, it would have written many more. Many, many, many more.
The story of Waterworld, after all, tends to overshadow Waterworld the film. It ran over budget dramatically. The set sank. It was the most expensive film ever made. It was bound to be a bomb.
And yet when the film was released, something happened that the film didn’t really get credit for. It became a modest hit. Even quite a big one. Waterworld is often written off as one of the most notorious box office disasters in history (here’s why it wasn’t a flop), but in truth, it wasn’t anywhere near. Its US take was just below $100m, granted, but it did good business elsewhere in the world, and by the time the money for the video and eventual disc versions was counted, Waterworld was in reasonable profit.
So why do so many people take against it? To answer that, we need to go right back to the start.
Robin Hood Reunited
Come the end of production on Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves, and one-time best friends Kevin Costner and director Kevin Reynolds were barely talking. Reynolds’ editor had been locked out of the Prince Of Thieves edit suite, and the cut of the film that was released wasn’t the one the director wanted. Christmas cards, had they been exchanged, would have been terse.
However, Costner and Reynolds built bridges, and the former produced the latter’s 1994 movie, Rapa Nui (that we wrote about in our look at arduous film productions). The pair agreed to make Waterworld together, with a given budget of $100m. It was based on a screenplay first penned in 1986 by Peter Rader. David Twohy would come in and do substantive work on the script too.
Twohy admitted he was influenced by George Miller’s action classic, Mad Max: The Road Warrior when working on the film. Some would suggest, as we’ll come to shortly, that the influence was ‘a heavy one’.
Costner would serve as one of the film’s producers, something he’d done increasingly since he regretted surrendering a little control over the script of Tony Scott’s Revenge. As the film spiralled over budget, he would also get a chunk of the blame. As the New York Times wrote back in 1995, “executives are blaming Mr Costner, who was given almost complete control of the film, including choice of a director. He chose his friend Kevin Reynolds, passing over Robert Zemeckis”.
The same article would note that those executives were treating that project “the same way that many government officials dealt with the Vietnam War – saying, essentially, they were not responsible”.
For wasn’t Waterworld set to be a disaster?
The Film Itself
There’s more than one cut of Waterworld in existence, and we’ll come to the extended version shortly. But for the here and now, it’s the theatrical version we’ve taken another look at. And in truth, I’ve always quite liked the film. It’s got an abundance of problems, but if you’re going to take $175m to make a big sea-based film set in a world that’d been all but flooded, at least put it on the screen. Waterworld very much does that. Relying little on computers (although there are moments it needs them), as a result, the practical sequences have very much stood the test of time.
With Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves, Reynolds showed that he could direct fluid action, and juggle lots of moving parts in the same scene (he’d do so again with the excellent, if unfaithful, adaptation of Dumas’ The Count Of Monte Cristo). Take the early sequence in Waterworld where the Smokers turn up for the first time. It’s a big set, floating in the sea, dressed to the max and with human beings running around it. Meanwhile, the sea based vessels have a velocity that Speed 2: Cruise Control would unsuccessfully grope for a couple of years later.
Mind you, the film actually opens with Costner drinking his own piss. Comfortably setting the scene for the degree of logic that the rest of the movie would sit on, he pees into a Goonies-esque contraption, which filters his urine and he glugs it down. There’s good reason why you don’t drink sea water, but given that at various points throughout the film people are gasping for liquid, it might have been an idea to either a) invent something that filtered the sea water instead or b) explained why you can’t drink the stuff.
That notwithstanding, we’re introduced to a world – thanks to a brief voice over and a bit of buggering about with the Universal Pictures logo – where the icecaps have melted. The planet is covered by sea. Dry Land (for it is a proper noun now) is a myth, apparently, but given that the objective of the movie is to find it, you suspect early on that it’s much of one.
And then we meet Costner’s Mariner.
Mad Mariner Max
It’s pretty much here that the Mad Max 2 comparisons begin. Spoiler: they barely end. George Miller’s Mad Max 2 is one of the finest practical action movies committed to film (The Road Warrior and Waterworld were both shot by Dean Semler, not coincidentally). Swap the deserts for water, the trucks for boats and the need for fuel for the need for 20 Bensons, and Waterworld bears a lot of similarities. Tellingly, Waterworld is nearly twice as long.
Costner’s Mariner, as with Mel Gibson’s Max, is actually unnamed for the entire film, and both characters aren’t really very pleasant people. Both are helped by people who make flying contraptions, both find themselves outsiders to the people they’re trying to help, and both turn a little bit nice towards the end.
Director Reynolds draws influence from George Miller too. Several times, he shoots his action from overhead, boats circling the floating community in the manner that any old vehicle circled the desert-based one. We’re not going to push the comparison further, just to say that if you were drawing Venn diagrams, and you need two films to interlock a lot, we can recommend a couple of DVDs to get you started. Waterworld isn’t as good a film, but it’s still a solid one.
It’s at its best when it doesn’t leave you pointing at the screen and questioning what it’s actually doing. Thus, early on, The Mariner floats his vessel into an atoll, checking everything out as if he’s on a slow-moving boat ride at a Disney theme park. Then, he finds a shop that’s sold out of everything, but, er, a tomato plant. Why? No idea. It just is.
But hang on! You know that Dry Land everyone’s looking for? Here’s a young girl, Enola, who’s not the daughter of Jeanne Tripplehorn’s Helen, but may as well be, who seems to have a map on the back. A map that nobody can read, until someone works out near the end of the film that it’s, er, upside down. Yep.
All that said, Waterworld’s world creation is actually very strong. Reynolds shoots lots of shots of open sea, and his sets look great on screen. Furthermore, the action sequences work a treat. Costner never made his name off action, but he’s good at it. His energy certianly takes the attention off his weird shell earrings, and the ‘gills’ behind his ears that some unkind critics decided looked more like, er, a vagina. Critics, might we suggest, who haven’t seen the nether regions of anyone female.
As with Reynolds and Costner’s previous collaboration on Robin Hood, there are some tonal moments which hardly feel comfortable. Helen, for instance, offers her body to The Mariner early on as a trade exchange, which he declines. Then, within an hour, rumping and pumping with the webbed one ensues. But it’s when there are implications that young Enola be abused – and they are there – that I found myself cringing.
Also in common with Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves, Waterworld has a villain – albeit a less effective one – that feels like he could have walked in from another film. It’s no secret that actor after actor turned down the role of the leader of the Smokers (for they are the baddies here), The Deacon. Gene Hackman said no. Gary Oldman said no. James Caan, Laurence Fishburne, it’s quite a list. Hot off the success of his villain turn in Speed though, the late Dennis Hopper was game. He would tell Empire magazine that he spent eight months on the film, although his limited screentime would suggest otherwise.
The whole idea of the Smokers isn’t great though. Everyone else is looking for Dry Land, they seem to be after duty free. What’s more, Hopper gets an eye patch, leading to a guffaw-inducing moment where we see him without it. To motivate his troops, he hands out free fags, or gives a speech based on bullshit.
Crucially, he just doesn’t feel that menacing and, unlike the early sequence in the atoll, you don’t feel any danger for The Mariner when the big confrontation at the end happens. Heck, he drops a flare into a fuel reserve at one point and walks away. Who does he think he is? Arnie?
Still, there are lots of Smokers, but that led to the film’s strongest action sequence, the aforementioned attack on the atoll near the start. Director Kevin Reynolds took us inside the practicalities of that. “At that time, CGI was not at the point it is now, it was a bigger deal”, he said. “And so, even though if you’re shooting across the atoll and you’re shooting out onto open water, when you turn around and do the reverses for the action, you had to rotate the entire atoll, so that you’re still shooting out to open water. Those are the kinds of things that people don’t realise”.
People certainly didn’t.
But then Reynolds knew in pre-production that problems were springing up, when he had a chat with the head of the studio at the time, Sid Sheinberg. “Steven [Spielberg] told me on Jaws the schedule for the picture was 55 days.” Sheinberg said to Reynolds. “And they ended up shooting 155 days.” Jaws went 100% over budget. Waterworld nearly did too.
The film ends, anyway, with The Mariner leading Helen and Enola to Dry Land (with a bit of help from the late, mighty Michael Jeter) before, er, like that other film, Costner heads back to sea rather than settling down.
It’s a clunky third act, but then, going back to that Joss Whedon interview we mentioned at the start, that’s hardly a surprise. Whedon was contracted to do seven weeks of rewrite work while the film was shooting, which he described as “seven weeks of hell.” “When I was brought in, there was no water in the last 40 pages of the script. It all took place on land, or on a ship, or whatever. I’m like, ‘isn’t the cool thing about this guy that he has gills?’ And no one was listening”, he recalled.
Noting that Costner was “very nice, fine to work with”, Whedon would basically take Costner’s ideas (“but he was not a writer”) and work them in where he could. “I wrote a few puns and a few scenes that I can’t even sit through because they came out so bad,” he recalled. Whedon’s full interview is here.
The Other Cut
Waterworld‘s bumpy production – which included the smaller of its two main sets sinking – was but part of the film’s problems. Another came when a new disagreement between the two Kevins blew up. In short, history repeated itself. With two weeks of the production still left on the movie, Kevin Reynolds departed the project. It’s unclear really whether he was sacked or quit, but the chances of he and Costner working together again looked incredibly slim (and yet they would, nearly two decades later, on Hatfield And McCoys).
Reynolds told us, back in 2008, how he would have changed the movie. “One of the things I’ve always been perplexed by in the version that was released theatrically – although subsequently the longer version included it, and the reason that I did the film – was that at the very end of the picture, at the very end of the script, there’s a scene when they finally reach dry land and The Mariner’s sailing off and he leaves the two women behind, and in the script they’re standing up on this high point and they’re watching him sail away, and the little girl stumbles on something. And they look down and clear the grass away and that’s this plaque. And it says, ‘Here, near this spot, 1953, Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary first set foot on the summit of Everest.’ And that was in script and I was like, ‘oh, of course! Wow, the highest point on the planet! That would have been dry land!’
It was, he said, “like the Statue Of Liberty moment in Planet Of The Apes.”
The extended cut, which has a few new ideas but bloats the film as a consequence (ironically, not unlike the extended Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves cut, that also put back material Reynolds didn’t want chopped in the first place), has since turned up on region one DVD. It’s more a sideways move than a forwards one though, although it does reinsert that ending.
Thoughts And Reception
Given everything that had happened, and the near-persistent press reports on how disastrous the film was (and this was in the pre-internet days!), there was some surprise when Waterworld was finally screened, and the reviews started to come back quite middling to relatively positive (Kevin Reynolds starkly remembers one critic walking out of a screening and saying, with disappointment in his tone, “well, it didn’t suck”). Then it did reasonably at the box office, again against expectations. It didn’t stop people throwing darts, of course, but it was still one of 1995’s most sizeable hits.
And you know what? It’s still not a bad film. It doesn’t hang together narratively particularly well, and nor does it feel like it has too many original bones in its soggy body. But it’s an entertaining spectacle, with some excellent sequences, and a craft that it doesn’t get the credit for.
But then, just as Waterworld has become one of the films you’re not allowed to say was a financial success, there are some quarters where it appears you’re not allowed to like it either.
I can safely say, on rewatching the film that – warts and all – this is not one of those quarters
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