1995 bore witness to many things – the triumphant return of the Batman, the O.J. Simpson trial, the release of Toy Story, and the end of the Bosnian civil war. It also saw the release of Kevin Costner’s thunderous action epic Waterworld, which somehow manages to contain the energy of all of those things I just mentioned. The most expensive film ever made at the time of its release, Waterworld also secured the dubious distinction of becoming one of the most infamous box office failures of all time.
If you’ve never seen it, and why would you have, the movie takes place on Earth in the distant future, after global warming has melted the ice caps and flooded the entire planet. Costner plays The Mariner, a drifter who encounters a young girl named Enola (Tina Majorino) with a map to the fabled Dryland tattooed on her back. The Mariner decides to help Enola and her caretaker Helen (Jeanne Triplehorn) find Dryland, and protect them from a gang of bloodthirsty pirates called the Smokers, one of whom is Jack Black in an airplane. Somehow, the movie manages to contain all these elements and still find a way to be extremely boring.
When it hit theaters 25 years ago this week, Waterworld already had a number of things working against it. Its extremely troubled production was widely reported, with several journalists criticizing the film as the worst kind of Hollywood hubris. Those critics were 100% correct. And while that hubris can occasionally result in a great film (see: the entirety of James Cameron’s career), Waterworld was not one of those times. It’s a dull slog with a repellent lead actor, crafted entirely around said actor’s considerable ego. That said, every inch of this movie is fascinating, and I have not been able to stop watching it for the past quarter century.
To be clear, I am not saying Waterworld is a good movie, nor will I ever. I approach it with the same obsessive joy that I do when I rewatch Congo for the 80th time. It’s a genuinely captivating artifact of so many broken parts that I can’t help but giggle like an idiot every time I start thinking about watching it again. There’s also a handful of things in Waterworld that do actually work. But I’m going to start by talking about the movie’s biggest problem, which is Costner himself. Made during the height of his power as a superstar, Waterworld is such an ego-driven project I’m legitimately surprised Costner’s face wasn’t plastered over every single flat surface featured in the film. Every one of the Smokers’ jet skis should be vaguely Costner-shaped, making Costner-voiced vroom sounds as they cut through the ocean. Apart from the distracting audacity of his hair (the movie makes great leaps to disguise the fact that he is balding, including having his mane be impossibly flat against his head every time he emerges from the water), Costner is just a black hole of anti-charisma plopped into the middle of the production like a wet box of cereal. He works as a leading man in movies that lean into his “aw shucks” midwestern charm, but Waterworld tries to make him a gruff antihero and he just comes off as an irredeemable asshole. One of the first things we see him do is sell Helen and Enola to a crazy drifter, barely changing his mind in time to save them from harm. And hey, I get it – the filmmakers wanted The Mariner to be a character that starts out selfish and villainous and eventually learns to care about other people. But the movie forgets to actually make The Mariner likeable at any point, and despite his mainstream appeal, Costner never had the acting ability to pull off any kind of nuanced performance. Consequently, The Mariner is just a pure fucking scumbag until he suddenly isn’t. And it’s hard to feel rousing excitement during an action scene when your hero is an expressionless scumbag.
Dennis Hopper, on the other hand, simply cannot help but be entertaining, regardless of how shitty the movie around him is. As I said earlier, there are a few good ideas in Waterworld, and hands down the best one is casting Hopper as the leader of a bunch of petroleum-worshipping doomsday pirates. He lives in the wreckage of the Exxon Valdez, which was a topical environmental reference in 1995 but in 2020 he should be living on one of Jeff Bezo’s derelict super yachts. The movie tries to get us to call Dennis Hopper “The Deacon,” but he is only interested in being Dennis Hopper, to the benefit of us all. Hopper is obsessed with capturing Enola and using her back map to find Dryland, for some reason. I guess because living on the ocean sucks, and because they’re running out of oil in their tanker. At any rate, Hopper and the pirates are the engineers of their own destruction, sabotaging themselves like Wile E. Coyote in pretty much every action sequence, up to and including the finale in which Hopper is killed after crashing his jet ski into another jet ski at several hundred nautical miles per hour because he literally wasn’t paying attention. In another scene, Hopper turns his head too fast and his fake eye flies out of his skull and rolls across the floor, and the movie behaves as if this isn’t the most insane thing ever captured on film. Yes, “Dennis Hopper spits a wooden eye out of his gangrenous face” is a box Waterworld emphatically checks off.
Ironically, the best parts of Waterworld are what made it such a colossal failure. First of all, it’s a really cool idea! A grungy dystopian action movie in a planet covered entirely by water sounds dope as hell, especially when you toss crazed pirates and gigantic mutant sharks into the mix. (The movie would have only benefited from more of these turbo sharks, to be honest.) The different boats all have an appropriate Mad Max feel to them, effectively conveying the “Road Warrior On the Ocean” vibe the filmmakers were going for. The production design is excellent, creating a believable universe for the characters to inhabit. The atoll set constructed for the film is equally impressive, and is the setting of the film’s signature action sequence. It’s the same sequence recreated in the Waterworld live stunt show at Universal Studios, which opened the same year as the film and is still running at the time of this writing. Incidentally, the idea that kids attending a theme park in the year of our lord 2020 might get so pumped up after seeing the stunt show that they bug their parents into renting Waterworld only to have their joyous hopes crushed as the bloated vanity project washes up onscreen like a dead whale is one that I think about often.
Sadly, doing a movie set entirely on the open ocean, with your cast and crew scattered across countless boats and actual floating sets, is impossibly expensive and time-consuming. Jaws (also produced by Universal) famously went more than 100 days over schedule, and that was just three guys sitting on a boat. Waterworld created an entire post-apocalyptic world at sea, including several massive action sequences. Even though it was filmed in a seawater enclosure, it was still basically in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, which notoriously doesn’t give a fig how many shots you need to get done on a given day. The production’s many delays and constantly ballooning budget were a favorite subject of entertainment journalists throughout its filming in 1994, so by the time the finished movie came out, audiences were well aware of its problems and critics were ready to dunk on it. (In addition to going nearly $100 million over budget, a stuntman got briefly lost at sea, and Costner himself almost drowned in a storm while filming a scene in which he was tied to the mast of his ship, among other things.) Critics took to calling it Fishtar and Kevin’s Gate, and honestly I can’t be mad at them because that’s pretty clever. It’s not the worst movie ever made, but it’s definitely not a good one, and its $200 million price tag didn’t do Costner’s career any favors. It was kind of the beginning of the end for him, as he followed Waterworld with a string of other bombastic failures like Wyatt Earp and The Postman. (I actually kind of like The Postman, but that’s an article for another time). Still, I am grateful Waterworld exists, if for no other reason than the scene in which a man locked in the tanker of the Exxon Valdez looks up from his task to see a wall of flame approaching and says “Oh thank God” right before exploding. Indeed, that sums up the entire film.
Tom Reimann is an Associate Editor at Collider who is almost certainly watching Waterworld this very minute. You can follow him on Twitter @startthemachine, but he will probably not respond to you, as he is currently watching Waterworld.