A strange, near-unbelievable event happened at my house this week. My husband Patrick and I -- both of us obsessive devotees of the art of cinema -- discovered a film that neither of us had ever seen.
The movie? Waterworld.
Hard to imagine, I know. Yet there it was. Universal Home Video released a two-disc, extended-version, special edition Waterworld DVD this week, and as we were both snorting with derision the shameful truth came out. We immediately knew that this travesty must be remedied.
Settling in on the couch with adult beverages and snacks, we were prepared for the worst. Dubbed Kevin's Gate (and, even funnier, Fishtar) when it was released in 1995 because of its troubled production and huge budget overruns, Kevin Costner's notorious dystopian epic Waterworld was almost universally panned by critics. Yet, it wasn't the box-office bomb that legend would have -- it earned a respectable $225 million on its $175 million investment. So while, yes, it was the most expensive movie ever made until Titanic beat the record, it still made money.
The question remains, however: Is it really as bad as its reputation would have us believe?
Set a couple of hundred years in the future, after melted polar icecaps have sunk the entire world under water, Waterworld begins with our hero, The Mariner (Costner) standing aboard his massive steel catamaran, urinating into a jar. He then filters the liquid, and drinks it.
"Okay," I said. "So Waterworld begins with Kevin Costner peeing?"
"It's a harbinger," Patrick said. "He's already peeing on the audience."
On a visit to a gated, protected atoll that serves as a sort of floating outpost-slash-city, Mariner gets into a fight with some ne'er-do-wells, and he's outed as a mutant when they see that he has gills behind his ears. Not being scientists, neither Patrick nor I were sure whether these gills made any sort of real sense. They sure freak the hell out of the local atoll-dwellers, though, who promptly lock him up in a steel cage and plan to drop him into a pit of nasty sludge.
And then the Road Warrior-style bad guys attack. On jet skis. A whole lot of jet skis.
"They don't have fresh water, fabric for clothing, paper, or music," I mused aloud. "But they have gasoline for jet skis?"
Patrick shrugged. "They also have machine guns," he noted. "And lots and lots of ammo." Clearly there would be a lot of willful suspension of disbelief involved in watching Waterworld.
Everyone on the atoll battles the Bad Guy Jet Ski Corps, who are led by a crazy-evil leader named Deacon, who's played by Dennis Hopper. It quickly becomes apparent that Hopper is the only person in the film who realizes how campy it all is, and he has a great time with lines like, "Don't just stand there, kill something!" and "You know, I thought you were stupid, friend. But I underestimated you. You are a total freaking retard!" This is a relief from the ponderous performance by Costner, who approaches his role as if the entire thing were a waterlogged Merchant-Ivory production.
Mariner is aided in his escape by a far-too-clean woman named Helen (Jeanne Tripplehorn) and a young girl named Enola (Tina Majorino, who will grow up to become Deb in Napoleon Dynamite). Mariner impresses Helen with his ability to swim really fast and fly straight up out of the water like a dolphin, no doubt due to his webbed toes.
"Who is he, freaking Namor?" Patrick exclaimed.
"Who?" I asked.
"He was a Marvel superhero. The Submariner," he said. "Or, more recently, the Man from Atlantis." Believe it or not, Patrick's memory for things like this is one of the reasons I married him. The man is a virtual Wikipedia of geekery.
The rest of the movie is divided into three parts -- scenes where Helen and Enola gradually warm the grumpy fish-guy's jaded heart, scenes where Deacon rants about his plans to capture Enola because of her back tattoo that will show the way to the mythical Dryland, and scenes where Deacon sends his jet-skiing, machine-gunning minions after Mariner, Helen and Enola, resulting in a lot of water stunts and stuff blowing up.
"They're wasting more resources on these attacks than they can possibly get in return," Patrick said.
I nodded. "That's why they can't afford clothes."
As Waterworld dog-paddles forward, it becomes progressively harder to suspend that willing disbelief, however. Important set-pieces and ridiculous action sequences pile up in an expanding mountain of "what the hell?" until they're impossible to ignore:
- Mariner takes Helen, encased in a homemade bathysphere (that he happens to have on board his catamaran even though he can breathe underwater and doesn't need one) down below to view the submerged ruins of a city. That city is Denver. "Apparently someone heard the nickname 'Mile High City' and decided it must be the highest point in Colorado," I said. "Too bad they never looked at a map," Patrick replied. "If they did, they might have seen that it's surrounded by mountains."
- In a wild maneuver to escape the clutches of Deacon's jet-ski brigade, Mariner hangs off the side of his massive steel catamaran and tilts it up on one side, off its outrigger. Never mind that whole point of outriggers (and, hence, catamarans) is that they don't tip over. What's even sillier is that Mariner's gigantic steam-punk catamaran must weigh 10,000 pounds.
- Deacon's followers all live aboard the rusted hulk of the Exxon Valdez (which was probably really funny in 1995) and operate a machine shop in the engine room. During a bizarre montage-like sequence, they push each other around in an old car while the soundtrack plays -- I'm not making this up -- the theme from the 1960's TV show Peter Gunn. And they pass out handfuls of cigarettes. That's right. They have centuries-old filter-tipped cigarettes.
- Mariner saves Enola from bad guys by tying a rope around his ankle, diving from a hot-air balloon (trust me, there's not space here to discuss the freaking hot air balloon that operates without any source of lift) and then bounces back up like the rope's a bungee cord.
- And -- not to give the ending away or anything -- the entire dénouement hinges on the discovery that, for all the previous years, everyone had been looking at Enola's map tattoo upside-down.
As we pondered the semi-happy ending of Waterworld, with the survivors headed for a new life on some green island that's supposed to be Mount Everest but was actually Hawaii, I realized something important about the film that no one had ever mentioned before.
"The Mariner blew up the oil tanker and killed hundreds of people whose only sin was that they followed a charismatic leader and wanted to find dry land," I said. "Really, if you think about it, Deacon was the hero and Mariner was the bad guy."
Patrick thought for a moment. "You know what I learned from watching this?" he asked, fast-forwarding through the end credits. "That Kevin Costner has hair plugs. You can see how bald he is when his head's wet."
NOTE: Universal's new two-disc "extended edition" offers the 177-minute supposed director's cut that aired on ABC television in 1997 -- dubbed-over profanity, poor video quality and all. A cleaner version of the original 136-minute theatrical cut is included, as well, plus the theatrical trailer. If you've never seen the long version and are curious, by all means check it out. But if you're one of the small number of real Waterworld fans and are hoping for a true Special Edition treatment with all the bells and whistles, this ain't it.
Dawn Taylor has nothing against Kevin Costner, she just prefers Bull Durham.