' Cinema Romantico: Wistfully '95: Waterworld

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Wistfully '95: Waterworld

Since I could finally both drive and get into R-rated movies in 1995, it doubled as the year in which I fell head over heels in love for the experience of Going To The Movies. And so, here in the future in 2015, we will periodically re-visit a handful of the offerings to which I first paid homage in various multiplex cathedrals of Des Moines, Iowa. 

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“Waterworld” has always been discussed in terms of hugeness. It was, after all, as the title suggests, a film set predominantly on the water. That’s a mammoth undertaking since water is often less cooperative than lowly crew members at whom directors can holler through a bullhorn. The movie’s budget, which excessively exceeded estimates, was $175 million, probably the cost of a hammer and a few nails on a modern day Marvel production but the largest ever in 1995. Its shooting schedule ran over by 54 days. Its shoot primarily took place in a vast artificial seawater enclosure. Colloquially it’s still known as a floppiest of flops even if stats prove that unfounded. Its production was so extreme that director Kevin Reynolds either walked off the set before shooting completed or was fired by star Kevin Costner who took up the auteur chair, whichever you want to believe, though either one works fine for the purposes of our thesis. This is because for all its immensity, “Waterworld” itself is really quite small, the story of one man – make that manfish – who is played by Costner and just seems to wish everyone around him would go the hell away.


At one time, of course, Costner was a box office magnet. He was something of an American Everyman, so much so that even when he played England’s seminal mythic son, Robin Hood, he did so with an American Everyman accent. Yet if you look at his roles from this Costner Era just a bit closer, you’ll see emergent dabs of peculiarities. Ray Kinsella of “Field of Dreams” was a wholesome Midwesterner but he also heard voices. His Jim Garrison of “JFK” was portrayed as a hero, yet the real life man was also often termed eccentric, and Costner isn’t afraid to let that seep out of the performance too, like in the shot when he literally bounds from the staircase after kissing his wife goodnight to his study. Even his Eliot Ness, an eternal emblem of truth & justice, could, in the right light, come across less like a white-hatted winner than an odd duck teetotaler. Eventually the Costner we all know now, the seemingly apathetic introverted Costner, the one who showed up to the Emmy’s as if he would have rather been anywhere else, the daffy and disinterested Costner who spent much of “The Upside of Anger” just chilling on the couch, would have to emerge. He did, and it just happened to coincide with a $175 million behemoth.

“Waterworld’s” story turns on the polar ice caps having melted, flooding the entirety of earth and rendering the planet as one singular ocean. Yet its most memorable – er, rememberable – liquid-based image stands apart from this colossal sea. The film opens with Costner’s character, the Mariner, drinking his own urine. Well, not exactly; it’s his urine run through a rudimentary filtration system, but still. A character’s introduction is crucial and the Mariner’s introduction works less as an invitation than a repellent. And his character does repel. “It could have made me care about the characters,” the late great Roger Ebert wrote of the film, and that’s true, it could have. But it doesn’t want to. Costner, it seems, doesn’t want to. When the whole world’s a sea, you’re out to it pretty much all the time, and when you’re out to it pretty much all the time, you’re gonna be a little standoffish. You don’t get eager at the sight of people, you get suspicious, and so it’s like the instant the movie-watching audience gets settled in its seats, the Mariner’s suspicions of us arise and he pushes us away with his pee.

Not long after, the Mariner winds up at an atoll, a kind of floating city, where the local lawman solemnly explains this lone visitor has “two hours” to get what he needs and hit the watery road. “I’ll only need one,” the Mariner replies. Here’s a guy so untaken with people that when he finally encounters a whole mess of ‘em he actively wants less time around them. And as quick as the Mariner wants off the atoll, you sense the movie wants the same. From this point forward, it never feels comfortable. In the lead-up, a sequence in which the Mariner encounters a few shady characters and fends them off, the film is content to unspool its action exposition-free, letting us glean the world and the way it works by just watching it happen. And the Mariner’s almost balletic movements about his 60 foot trimaran are visually intoxicating, quite likely the film’s strongest element, to the point that when others are on his boat they just seem to be in the way, to him and to us.


If it’s a movie called “Waterworld”, though, then there has to be a Dryland, and if there’s a Dryland there has to be a map to find it, and if there’s map to find it then, hey, why not make it a tattoo on a little girl’s back because then the Mariner can encounter the little girl (Tina Majorino) who can help cheer him up (because he needs to be cheered up) and the little girl can have a mom (Jeanne Tripplehorn) with whom the Mariner can fall in love (because the Mariner needs to fall in love).

None of this especially noteworthy, just a series of passable to decently entertaining action sequences also involving a villain played by Dennis Hopper who might be partially amusing but feels like he’s still running on “Speed” fumes. For such extravagant expense, “Waterworld” never feels awe-inspiring, perhaps because deep down in the places it didn’t talk about at budget meetings it wanted to primarily be a movie about a solo sailor that couldn’t be because you can’t spend that much money on a movie that’s just about an introverted mutant manfish. And so what we’re left with feels un-involving and as glum as the costumes.

Even when the Mariner is meant to be smitten with the mother and charmed by the daughter, Costner never makes it feel convincing, like he’s play-acting, like this is what the script calls for, nothing else. It’s not accurate to say that this is when Costner stopped wanting to be a movie star because he never really wanted to stop being a movie star (see: the messianic complex of “The Postman” two years later). But maybe it’s when he stopped caring if he was Everybody’s Everyman and decided to start being a prickly ass who would demonstrate empathy only at his time and place of choosing. I can’t quite decide if that’s commendable or reckless.

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