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On July 28, 1995, Universal unveiled its producer-star Kevin Costner’s expansive epic Waterworld in theaters. The pricey film stumbled domestically but nevertheless made $264 million globally during its theatrical run. The Hollywood Reporter’s original review is below:
The costliest Hollywood film in contemporary annals, with production difficulties and the fallout between star Kevin Costner and director Kevin Reynolds covered at length by the media, Waterworld is an uneven, uninvolving post-apocalypse epic spruced up with chaotic battle sequences and aquatic feats of heroism.
The initial wave of interest based on the publicity and headliner Costner should make for a big opening for the Universal release, but the finished product is not the stirring adventure for the ages that the filmmakers thought they were making. Mixed reviews and word-of-mouth will undercut the film’s chances of sailing away to box-office glory.
Not surprisingly, Waterworld is a monumental example of how script troubles, creative differences, power struggles and bad luck can swamp a potentially worthwhile project. Frequently, the compromises and hard decisions made to get to a final print are evident onscreen, while some of the story’s more promising elements are left in the wake.
From the outset, Waterworld struggles to achieve verisimilitude while one waits patiently for the protagonists to develop beyond the sketchy portraits with which they are initially saddled. But that never really happens, and the actors struggle with uninspired dialogue and the production’s enormous physical requirements.
Costner as the Mariner — a loner with gills and webbed feet wandering the world — is the film’s one halfway original character. Piloting his trusty trimaran, retrieving artifacts from the cities covered when the polar ice caps melted, the Mariner is a self-absorbed, emotionless survivor who trades dirt for essentials.
The seas are a violent place, and the Mariner trusts no one. But when he’s deemed a dangerous mutant, nabbed by the inhabitants of a floating man-made atoll and almost “recycled,” Helen (Jeanne Tripplehorn) saves his life and earns his begrudging loyalty. Attached to Helen is young Enola (Tina Majorino), a dreamy, likes-to-draw girl with a tattooed back supposedly showing where dry land is located.
Like the dominant natural element of the story, the characters are limited. Helen is grateful for the Mariner’s assistance, while he wants to toss the girl overboard. Enola can’t swim and has an active imagination, but she’s still a spoiled brat.
Helen offers herself to him, but he’s too busy. She messes with the boat and almost causes their deaths, so he whacks her with a paddle. It grows tiresome when nobody makes the effort to develop a personality.
All anybody wants in this movie is to find dry land, supposedly centuries after the oceans covered it up. Roaring into the movie whenever there’s a momentary lull, and underscoring the film’s dearth of ideas, is Dennis Hopper as the Deacon; he heads a horde of bad guys on jet skis who pillage and murder at will. Their plan is to grab Enola and find, you guessed it, dry land.
After the film’s finest sequence — an assault of the atoll with plenty of terrific stunts, explosions and crowd-pleasing thrills — the story lurches between the protagonists squabbling on the trimaran and the Deacon’s relentless pursuit. Eventually the Mariner must rescue Enola from the Deacon’s stronghold — a rusty Exxon Valdez overrun with dirty, hairy malcontents.
On the plus side, the Mariner’s ingenuity in maneuvering the trimaran provides more than a few thrills, while the hybrid technology employed by both heroes and villains is reasonably well-thought-out and realized on screen. The big-scale action scenes are exciting, but the dialogue is often lost in the thundering explosions.
Decidedly on the down side are most of the performances, with Tripplehorn and Majorino failing to make much of their characters. With bad hair days making things even worse, the former is particularly at sea with the underwritten, uninteresting role. Hopper is likewise a lackluster addition to the mixture.
With little dialogue and no cause other than his character’s self-survival, Costner is successful when he’s called upon to swing on ropes and dive off things, but the character is not interesting enough to carry the whole film. As a movie hero, the Mariner needed more allies or some well-defined mythic qualities to contrast with his no-nonsense approach to life.
After all the bucks spent, one is indeed impressed by the sets and huge amounts of extras in particular scenes, but the overall vision is underwhelming. The story and the visual style owe far too much to the Mad Max series, while such an intriguing thing as the Mariner’s superior swimming ability is introduced, then never used again.
James Newton Howard’s thundering score is stirring in the most basic ways, but nothing special. The many visual effects are more than adequate to distract one from the film’s numerous plot holes, incongruities and unrealized possibilities. — David Hunter, originally published on July 24, 1995.
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