Top positive review
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like Mad Max, but wetter
on January 25, 2016
Twenty years later I revisited Kevin Costner's bloated albatross - y'know, the one that was supposed to sink his career - and found it to be not as horrific as them critics have trumpeted. Is it a flawed movie? Yes, my gosh. There are real issues with pacing and length and the wafer-thin plot. And Costner's lead character could've been portrayed more sympathetically. Because the Mariner is a cold, cold bastard who doesn't thaw until near the third act. But the ups of the movie, I think, supercede the downs of it.
The premise is irresistible to sci-fi post-apocalyptic adventure junkies like me. Imagine a drowned world. Imagine the polar ice caps melting, thus covering the entire planet in water. Hundreds of years elapse, giving rise to mutations and to isolated communities of man that inhabit these ramshackled artificial islands, most of which are comprised of ancient seagoing vessels. What once were things we took for granted are now deemed invaluable bartering chips - things like paper, like dirt.
This is the story of the Mariner, a sullen recluse who subsists by scavenging the oceans and who harbors a secret - namely, his gills and his webbed feet. It's about how he stumbled across a orphaned little girl (Tina Majorino) and her guardian (Jeanne Tripplehorn). It's about the search for the mythical Dry Land and how, just maybe, the tattoo on the little girl's back could be a tricky map to it.
I think most of the hate surrounding this movie had nothing to do with the quality of the movie itself. Waterworld was shot in 157 days and cost roughly $175 million to make, an obscene amount of green that left its detractors in conniptions. Haters also railed at Costner's ego, and maybe even justifiably so. Waterworld was clearly a vanity project.
Except Waterworld works as a summer blockbuster. It's certainly superior to most of the pap we've gotten since that summer of 1995. It is visually impressive, elevated by great production design and photography. There's something so desolate and so frightening about having to survive on water. The movie adeptly depicts water's inhospitable nature, how its sheer might and scope make us feel tiny and insignificant.
I dig the brutal Mad Max vibe. The Mariner's world is dotted with the rusty, decaying remnants of a once-thriving civilization. Everyone is grubby and stenchy and exists in squalor. You know dental hygiene's gone out the window. It's a world where the strong take from the weak, and so we have the Smokers who are essentially pirates or reavers. It's about how the Mariner butts heads with the leader of a band of Smokers, the chain-smoking Deacon. He's played with manic abandon by Dennis Hopper who, back in the 1980s and '90s, was on every casting director's rolodex for playing demented, offbeat big bads. Hopper must've had a rollicking grand time with this role, all camp and cheese and goofy, dumb lines, like the one he directs at the Mariner at the showdown: "Well, I'll be damned, it's the gentleman guppy. You know, he's like a turd that won't flush." The Deacon had also gotten the wind up about the little girl and the map to Dry Land, and, yes, the little girl is the movie's McGuffin. She's also the one that softens up our laconic hero. She humanizes the Mariner, only it takes so long for her to do it that, for most of the movie, I wasn't invested in what Kevin Costner was trying to do.
Give Costner credit, his role was a physically demanding one and I could swear that's him doing most of his own stunts. It was a criticism back in the day, but I actually enjoyed the extensive scenes of him scampering all over his makeshift catamaran, tugging at this, winding that up, whatever. Those scenes work as a tutorial on how the catamaran functions. It's Costner's version of the Batmobile, and, boy, did he want to show it off.
There's a healthy amount of humor, never mind Costner's super-bland, super-stoic hero. Maybe my favorite gag is when we learn the name of the Deacon's derelict oil tanker. It was topical back in the day. I even appreciate that little touch of Portu-Greek, the hybrid chosen tongue of the mariners. (Whatever happened to Esperanto? That was a made-up language that was supposed to sweep the globe.) The action is loud and chaotic and great fun, and, again, you have to marvel at Costner for being in the thick of most of them. You can see where the CG work went in, but there are also tons of practical effects to which George Miller would probably give a thumbs up. Anyway, 3.5 out of 5 stars. Not as shudderingly awful as past folks had made it out to be.