There are some movies that are pure summer to me and Waterworld is one of them. The beautiful warm clear weather, the tropical bright blue water, the big budget popcorn flick-ness and you get my point. This movie gets so much shit but I could never quite put my finger on why. I was never a big fan of it but there wasn’t one obvious thing you could point to that painted a clear picture of what was so wrong with the film. Well let’s dive in (get it?) and try to figure this the fuck out.
We open with the narrator telling us that in the future the polar ice caps have melted and we can see for ourselves that Earth has become a bonafide Waterworld now. The narrator doesn’t give us any more info than that but at least we know it’s the future of our own world and not some other planet far far away or some shit.
Then we meet our main character…uhh…water…guy? We never actually learn his name but IMDb lists him as Mariner so I’ll go with that. It’s risky (and ok, a little cool) to not give your hero a name. Sure it can work like in the man with no name series (A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly) but ultimately you want your lead to have some sort of name, even John or Jack like almost every action hero from the 80’s and 90’s. Whatever, Mariner is a loner. He just drifts around the ocean trading with passing ships and going from one manmade atoll to another. He doesn’t talk a lot and when he does he doesn’t mess around. These are all good points. The beef I have is he’s too underdeveloped. We don’t even know if he’s haunted by his past because we don’t know anything about his background at all. He doesn’t smoke, drink, gamble, have lots of sex or fall victim to any vice or bad behavior. Well, he can be rude sometimes but that’s only when people are rude to him first. Bottom line is he’s uninteresting. Mariner may not think twice about killing a dude, but aside from that standard action movie character feature there’s no real edge to the guy. By the end I felt like I didn’t know him all that well or that I’d want to go on another adventure with him. He’s just kinda there. Kevin Costner (Swing Vote) went for stoicism, which I’m down with, but he forgot to add depth to the character and that’s sort of an important thing to leave out in my opinion.
Let’s talk about this universe for a minute. In Waterworld people have huddled together in tribes. But these tribes aren’t split along racial lines like you would think. Instead it’s divided between smokers and, well, nonsmokers I suppose. Slavers are mentioned twice but that’s it. We never find out a single solitary thing about those folks, except that they may or may not be bad guys. Anyway, there are more differences between the smokers and nonsmokers besides cigarettes (which happen to be the only things that smokers light up by the way. Wouldn’t a pipe be a more practical approach? Because if a pipe gets wet it won’t, you know, be ruined beyond repair like a cig). Smokers like to use vehicles powered by engines, nonsmokers do not; smokers have guns, nonsmokers have spears, knives and other non-explosive type shit; the smokers are governed by a dictator, the nonsmokers are governed by some sort of council.
But of course the real question is why are people who smoke cigarettes and ride on jet skis the bad guys? I have no goddamn clue. There isn’t really the message of technology=bad here because Mariner uses fancy mechanical rigs all the fucking time and the bumbling yet loveable mad scientist character, Gregor (Michael Jeter (Tango & Cash)), built an electric generator that powers the lights in the atoll at night. Mariner even rides a jet ski at the end that helps him on his mission.
Where did they get the gas for the engines anyway? Dennis Hopper (Swing Vote) and his henchmen use a humungous oil tanker (it’s funny that they had it be the ol’ Exxon Valdez), with a fairly large supply of oil still left in it, as their base of operations. But you need to refine that shit. You can’t just pour crude oil in your gas tank. So either they figured out how to refine it or they modified the engines to run on something else. I wonder if they came up with similar technology to what Doc Brown invented in Back to the Future Part II where the engines run on garbage. That would be very convenient as there’s apparently tons of it around? I’ll get back to that thought in a minute.
Another thing that isn’t explained are the guns. Specifically what I’m talking about is the gunpowder and shell casings. We never find out where they come from. Did the smokers make them themselves or did they stumble across a massive cache? Really it’s pretty stupid that guns are in here at all. I mean we’re in a world where there is no land (for the most part) so you would think guns would be out. But no, they stuck ‘em in anyway.
The gas powered vehicles, the guns, the cigarettes and almost everything else in the movie is part of an overall problem with the script. It’s childish and dumbed down. The action scenes should’ve been all hand to hand combat and knife fights but the filmmakers and the studio felt that wouldn’t be exciting enough. There need to be guns and explosions because that’s what people like, right? They can’t all ride around on sail boats and paddle boats either, that’s boring. So speedy gas powered boats exist here. And the bad guys smoke because, well, it looks a little menacing, sorta, not really. You also have a protagonist who’s pretty much infallible and who’s developed the superhuman ability to breathe underwater somehow.
It’s like a seven-year-old’s idea of how this universe should go. What’s the opposite of water? Dirt. So that means it’s the most valuable thing in Waterworld. Paper is another rare commodity because it’s easily destroyed by water. Also, from the movie’s perspective everyone’s surrounded by sea water so fresh water is scarce and they can only get some when it rains or something. All of these items are just absolutely fucking thoughtless. Dirt and paper should have very little value to these people as they can’t really plant anything and if water is everywhere then that wouldn’t make paper a good record keeping device. And fresh water shouldn’t be an issue. The citizens of Waterworld clearly never saw The Voyage of the Mimi where they show you how to make fresh water from salt water using only primitive materials. Everyone should have their own solar still and an ample supply of fresh water. Although, finding fresh water doesn’t figure into the plot, like at all. So, whatever.
I’m gonna go to bullet points for a while because there are still so many things I want to mention and this will be the most efficient way:
· The atoll being so gigantic and fortified is yet another thing that doesn’t make much sense. How did something like that get built? Where did the materials and the tools come from? This is what I was talking about with all the junk lying around. We don’t see that the ocean is filled with endless amounts of crap floating on the surface. Instead it’s pristine looking water for miles in every direction. Not one piece of scrap metal in sight (so I guess someone didn’t invent that BTTF garbage fueled engine after all).
· The movie probably could’ve started with Mariner at sea for a minute and then arriving at the atoll. Of course we wouldn’t get a demonstration that this guy is a badass sonuvabitch that will kill (or leave you for dead) if you cross him. And yes yes, we wouldn’t see a dude filtering and then drinking his own piss but that could’ve easily been worked in almost anywhere else.
· While the opening scene isn’t totally necessary it’s still fine in the overall scheme of things. However, the scene where the sun baked nut job sells Mariner paper and then buys some time with Jeanne Tripplehorn (The Firm, Basic Instinct) is completely unnecessary. It doesn’t further the plot (looking for dry land and/or fighting smokers) or bring up crucial character development. We already know that Mariner is cool with Jeanne and Enola because even though he’s threatened to kill them (in so many words) he still lets them tag along on his boat. You can totally tell he likes them and that they’re all growing to be good friends. We also know that Mariner will kill a motherfucker if need be. He killed at least one smoker dude back at the atoll and beat the shit out of a bunch of others. The nut job doesn’t give Mariner anything that will help him find dry land later either. So this scene is 100% superfluous and should’ve been cut out.
· After Mariner’s boat gets destroyed and Enola is captured Mariner and Jeanne have sex. Why? Beats the hell outta me.
· Mariner goes after Enola (Tina Majorino (Napoleon Dynamite, Andre)) at the end because…she’s his friend. That’s it. He doesn’t have a stake in finding dry land because he’s adapted to the water with his gills and webbed feet, he doesn’t say he wants her back so that the atoll survivors can find dry land, and while he isn’t friendly with the smokers he isn’t hellbent on their destruction either. He simply wants to rescue his friend. This was probably too damn saccharine for most people to take, including myself.
· Remember when Mariner holds a burning flare over a tube on the oil tanker at the end? How did he know the tube he’s standing next to leads to a pit filled with oil? And even if he did know something was down there how does he know what oil is or that it’ll burn? Ok so even if he knew about oil and that it would cause an explosion how did he know he wouldn’t kill himself and Enola in the process? There are a lot of assumptions in that scene.
· What gas is Gregor’s airship thingy filled with that makes it fly? And where did he get it? (By the way it doesn’t look like he uses hot air so I’m ruling that out)
· Almost every smoker vehicle explodes when it hits something.
· Why the fuck are the directions to dry land so goddamn cryptic? When they finally find out how to read Enola’s tattoo they realize that the coordinates are the opposite of what’s really written. Either you want people to find this small piece of land or you don’t. Make it something simple and spell it out if you want help. Otherwise don’t put some enigmatic tattoo on the back of your kid that people may or may not be able to figure out.
· It’s easy to miss but Enola is essentially supposed to be Moses. They mention that she was found in a basket (presumably floating around the ocean for a little while), she has a prophetic message etched on her back and she eventually leads people to the Promised Land (dry land). This angle is extremely underplayed though and I wonder if the religious allegories were originally more prominent.
· Why would Enola’s folks send their child off to an almost certain death? I guess they were the last humans left on the island and wanted to see if there was anyone else out there but why not send a different message of some kind? You know, one that doesn’t involve your baby having to deliver it personally.
Post-apocalyptic flicks are tricky. They tend to be big hits or big bombs. On one hand you have The Hunger Games, Wall-E, Planet of the Apes and The Mad Max series. But then on the other hand you have The Book of Eli, Reign of Fire, Battlefield Earth and, well, The Postman. It seems that the post-apocalypse isn’t something that everyone can get on board with. I think there’s a sharp divide between people that are into the aftermath of the destruction of the world as we know it and people that just flat out aren’t.
One of the main gripes after watching Waterworld this time is that despite being over two hours long they sure don’t explain much. There’s too much just accepting that this is the way things are. They wanted to have their big action set pieces, which I can totally understand, but they’re gonna go to waste if you don’t paint a rich enough picture. We don’t know the backstory to any of the characters except Enola. Hell I don’t even know anyone’s name, again besides Enola. Ok and maybe Gregor but that’s it. There’s no real context for anything. It’s all so flat and underdeveloped.
This isn’t to say that the movie doesn’t have its fun moments. The big fight scene on the oil tanker at the end is an alright time and the atoll attack scene is probably the best part of the picture. It’s during these sequences that you can understand, and maybe even appreciate, why this thing was made. It’s a spectacle, a big summer blockbuster with some huge sets, stars and action. Sure we would all like something more thoughtful and absorbing but at times Waterworld can be pretty impressive, at least production-wise. Plus I dig the soundtrack, especially that main theme. It’s a real shame that such an adventurous and exciting theme got buried under the massive amount of criticism the rest of the film got.
Ok fine, so I piled on the criticism myself with this rambling review. The concept is cool ‘n’ all but man, they fucked it up. It’s just too simplistic and childish in its approach. The stunt show at Universal Studios Hollywood works better than the movie does. I’d say catch that if you happen to be there.
A little addendum here, apparently there was a ton of footage shot for Waterworld that didn’t make the final cut. Well someone did us a favor and put all that shit together to make The Ulysses Cut. It runs about three hours and includes extended scenes as well as scenes that were cut entirely. The only caveat is that it was pieced together from television broadcasts that aired over the years so it’s censored. But if you’re interested it exists.