The Big Splash: Exploring the Flop That Was Waterworld
Here’s a fun fact about me that you probably didn’t know, I consider the 1995 film ‘Waterworld’ to be one of the greatest action films ever made. ‘Waterworld’ represents everything that a good blockbuster should be. ‘Waterworld’ is pure escapism, set in a distant future which we can sort of buy into, but it’s just that little bit too far fetched for the viewer to feel unsettled and too depressed. The action set pieces and the stunts should be proof alone as to why the Academy is long overdue in creating a category for best stunt work.
The sets and epic stunts were created in a time pre-CGI which has now completely taken over action films. Every piece of scenery and every prop you see on screen was carefully crafted by hand. Each stunt was painstakingly choreographed. When you consider the level of work that went into creating ‘Waterworld’, it’s hard not to be impressed with the sheer ambition of director Kevin Reynolds and the dedicated performance by Kevin Costner.
Dubbed ‘Mad Max at Sea,’ ‘Waterworld’ is a hybrid of genres. It’s partly a post apocalyptic dystopia, and also a high octane action film going at full throttle. Like ‘Mad Max’, ‘Waterworld’ is set in the future although it is never confirmed just how far into the future we find ourselves in. The polar ice caps have completely melted, and the sea level has risen over 25,000 feet, covering nearly all of the land. The remains of human civilization live on floating communities known as atolls, the currency is now fresh water and dirt. Everyone clings on to the idea of finding a mythological “Dryland”.
The hero of ‘Waterworld’ is reminiscent of the man with no name from Sergio Leone’s “Dollars Trilogy”. Kevin Costner is The Mariner, a drifter who prefers to sail the seas on his lonesome. The Mariner is even more of an outcast because of he has a mutation (he has webbed toes and gills). He arrives at an atoll in order to trade, but the residents are less than friendly. Suddenly the atoll is attacked by the Smokers, a gang of pirates seeking a girl named Enola (Tina Majorino) who, according to their leader the Deacon (Dennis Hopper), has a map to Dryland tattooed on her back. Enola’s guardian, Helen (Jeanne Tripplehorn), attempts to escape and recruits the Mariner and insists that he take the two of them with him. What proceeds is a game of cat and mouse as the three of them try to outsmart the Smokers and find dry land first (if it exists of course).
‘Waterworld’ was penned by screenwriter Peter Rader, who originally set out to do a ‘Mad Max rip-off’ (his words, not mine). Rader went through several drafts of ‘Waterworld’ before handing it over to David Twohy. Eventually even Buffy creator Joss Whedon who was flown out to set to do rewrites (by then they had already started filming without a finished script), Whedon described the experience as “seven weeks in hell.”
The film’s production was plagued by conflict between Costner (who also produced the fim) and director Kevin Reynolds, who constantly butted heads on their vision for the film. Reynolds and Costner had worked together in the past on Fandango and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. Reynolds may have been given the full credit of director, but according to him it was Costner who was making most of the decisions, Reynolds would describe Costner as a “back-seat driver director”.Things reached boiling point on the set of Waterworld, prompting Reynolds to walk out (or should that be, sail off) the set. After leaving the production, Reynolds told Entertainment Weekly – “In the future Costner should only appear in pictures he directs himself. That way he can always be working with his favorite actor and his favorite director.”
As you can imagine, shooting on open water isn’t the easiest of tasks. Issues arose when camera crews found themselves taking hours to set up relatively simple shots. On top of the camera set ups, many of the sets that were constructed on the water sank into the ocean. Some could be salvaged, but that heaped another cost on the already expensive production.The nearly year-long shooting period of Waterworld took its toll on the cast and crew.
In fact, Costner was on set for 157 days, working 6 day weeks and he nearly died when he got caught in a squall while tied to the mast of his trimaran. The worst injury to occur on set happened to Kevin Costner’s stunt double, Norman Howell, suffered a near-fatal embolism while filming a deep-sea dive. Howell had to be flown to a hospital on Honolulu, where he recovered in a decompression chamber. No wonder there was such a high crew turnover.
‘Waterworld’ has always had this reputation for being an epic flop, however the truth is that ‘Waterworld’ is far from being the box office bomb that we have been led to believe. Partly the reason for ‘Waterworld’s reputation is that it’s original budget ballooned from $100 million, to an estimated $175 million, a record sum for a film production at the time. It is reported that the state of Hawaii (where most of the film was shot) had more than $35 million added to its economy as a result of the colossal film production. In Simon Brew’s fascinating article for Den of Geek, he states that Waterworld made $264 million at cinemas alone (a combined amount of $88 million at the US box office and $176 million at the overseas box office). So, the numbers don’t lie. In reality, ‘Waterworld’ eventually made its staggering budget back, and to this day still remains profitable for Universal.
The critical response to ‘Waterworld’ was mixed. Roger Ebert gave the film 2.5 stars, stating in his review “[It] could have been more, it could have been better, and it could have made me care about the characters. It’s one of those marginal pictures you’re not unhappy to have seen, but can’t quite recommend.” I can’t help but agree with Ebert, the film lacks so much in terms of character development and suffers from a weak narrative. Still, watching ‘Waterworld’ again transports me to a time where I could simply get lost in watching a film and not be analyzing every last aspect of the film’s mise-en-scene.
Simply put, if you want to shut your brain off for 2 and a half hours, then ‘Waterworld’ is the film for you.