Waterworld (United States, 1995)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

The makers of Waterworld, the current holder of the "most expensive film" title, have put a good portion of the money where the viewing public can see it -- on the screen. This production, with its massive explosions, amazing stunts, and breathtaking visuals, is one of Hollywood's most lavish features to date. All of the action takes place on a wide expanse of ocean, with no land in sight. It's no easy feat for human actors to emulate fish.

It's an unspecified date in the future. As we're told in a quick voiceover intro, the polar ice caps have melted and Earth's continents are buried under water. Humanity has been relegated to a tenuous existence on shakily-constructed floating fortress-cities. There is no land, and pure water and dirt have become exceptionally valuable commodities. The world is a cruel place, where brotherhood is a thing of the past, and anything -- or anyone -- can be sold or traded for as little as a sheet of paper. Possessions, not people, are what matter.

There are three kinds of survivors: those who try to live in orderly societies, nomads who roam the seas in their own vessels, and members of an outlaw band called the "Smokers." Headed by the larger-than-life Deacon (Dennis Hopper), these criminals amuse themselves by raping and pillaging while on a quest for the mythical Dryland -- a paradise that no one has seen, yet everyone believes exists.

The Mariner (Kevin Costner) becomes one of the Smokers' targets when he rescues the girl Enola (Tina Majorino) from a raid on a fortress-city. She is no ordinary child -- on her back is a tattoo which supposedly identifies the location of Dryland. The Mariner, a mutant man who has developed working gills and webbed feet, has little use for Enola or her older companion, Helen (Jeanne Tripplehorn), but he owes them his life and intends to pay the debt. Once the scales are even, however, they become expendable.

Waterworld follows two parallel paths. The first sets the Mariner's personality on a course of transformation from self-centered to heroic. The other is the more tangible search for Dryland, which we instinctively know is going to appear during the film's last act. After all, how often do movie quests go unfulfilled? The script doesn't do a great job with either the spiritual or the physical trek, but the spectacular action sequences occur with enough regularity that strong writing isn't necessary to keep Waterworld afloat. A little adrenaline can obscure quite a few holes.

Kevin Costner, admittedly not the world's greatest actor, is fine as the dour Mariner. With a greater range than Schwarzenegger, Stallone, Van Damme, and Seagal combined, Costner is more than capable of handling the limited role of an action hero. Dennis Hopper, on the other hand, serves a dual function: chief villain and comic relief. Not content with merely going over-the-top this time around, Hopper makes it obvious that nothing about Deacon is to be taken seriously -- and the approach works. There's a strand of unmistakable, completely intentional humor running through Waterworld.

A couple of the more "tender" relationships fail. The Mariner's affection for Enola comes across as forced, despite Majorino's winning performance. Aliens showed what a pseudo-parent/child bond can do for a movie, and that intensity is missing here. Also, the romance between the Mariner and Helen is perfunctory at best, and largely underdeveloped and unsatisfying.

Although the storyline isn't all that invigorating, the action is, and that's what saves Waterworld. In the tradition of the old Westerns and Mel Gibson's Road Warrior flicks, this film provides good escapist fun. Everyone behind the scenes did their part with aplomb, and the result is a feast for the eyes and ears. And, though this film may have cost Universal upwards of $175 million, the price at the box office for the average movie-goer will still be in the $7.50 range -- worth it if adventure is your kind of thing.

Waterworld (United States, 1995)

Director: Kevin Reynolds
Cast: Kevin Costner, Dennis Hopper, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Tina Majorino, Michael Jeter
Screenplay: Peter Rader and David Twohy
Cinematography: Dean Semler
Music: James Newton Howard
U.S. Distributor: Universal Pictures
Run Time: 2:15
U.S. Release Date: 1995-07-28
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence, Nudity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1