'Waterworld' Turns 20: How Costner's Apocalyptic Adventure Became one of the Biggest-Budgeted Fiascos of All Time

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“Every generation gets the Waterworld it deserves,” wrote Time Out’s David Ehrlich a few months ago, in reference to the Wachowskis’ big-budget megaflop Jupiter Ascending. It’s just the most recent example of how Kevin Costner’s seafaring blockbuster — released twenty years ago today, and once the most expensive film ever made — is still perceived as a disaster, both creatively and commercially. But two decades on, is that really fair?

Originally pitched as a $3 million cheapie for B-Movie king Roger Corman, Peter Rader’s script for Waterworld — later rewritten by Pitch Black’s David Twohy, among others — was a post-apocalyptic tale set in a world after the polar ice caps had melted, covering almost all the land on Earth with, well, water. The last of humanity live on floating man-made atolls, preyed upon by slavers and pirates.

Among them sails The Mariner (Costner), a lone drifter with a mutation that allows him to breathe underwater via a pair of gills behind his ears. Mariner survives by drinking his own pee, as the movie’s infamous opening shot makes clear:

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But his survival-at-all-costs lifestyle is upended when he encounters another sea-wanderer named Helen (Jeanne Tripplehorn) and a child, Enola (Tina Majorino). They’re both being pursued by the leader of a pirate band called the Smokers (Dennis Hopper), who believes the women may hold the secret to the fabled place known as Dryland.  

Rader’s screenplay eventually came to the attention of Universal, who recruited Costner to star and produce. The actor was coming off a string of commercial disappointments, including Wyatt Earp and The War, but still had the clout that came from such early-‘90s success stories as Dances With Wolves and The Bodyguard. Costner even got his pick of directors, insisting that his friend and collaborator Kevin Reynolds — with whom he’d made 1991’s hit Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves — come aboard Waterworld, passing over more bankable filmmakers, including Forrest Gump’s Robert Zemeckis.

Production began in Hawaii (or more accurately, just off Hawaii: the majority of the film was shot on the open sea) early in 1994, with the filmmakers even undergoing a traditional ceremony to ask a blessing from the gods (“We thought it would be a good omen,” said one crew member.) And everyone was aware they might need good omens: Reynolds would later tell Den Of Geek that Universal boss Sid Sheinberg had warned him that Steven Spielberg’s original shooting schedule for Jaws — which also filmed on open water —went 100 days longer than its original 55-day estimate.

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Kevin Costner as the Mariner with no name in ‘Waterworld’ (Photo: Universal Pictures)

Those warnings quickly came true, with the film swiftly going over schedule and budget: “Nobody realized the magnitude of the problems with making a movie like this,” an unnamed production source told The Los Angeles Times. “It’s slow going, and setting up the shots [on the water] takes forever.” The problems seemed to never end: The cast got sick, with one stuntman getting the bends. A set was sunk in a hurricane. And Costner would claim he “nearly died” after being strapped to the mast of a boat for half an hour in high winds.

It probably didn’t help that the script for Waterworld was constantly in flux; as Costner would tell The San Francisco Chronicle, “We shouldn’t have green-lighted this movie until the script was finished.” At one point, Joss Whedon, future writer-director of The Avengers movies, was flown to set to help with rewrites. “I was supposed to be there for a week, and I was there for seven weeks, and I accomplished nothing,” he later told The AV Club.

Related: 'Waterworld’ Spin Cycle: How Kevin Costner and Cast Dealt With All the Controversy 20 Years Ago

With each new problem, Waterworlds budget continued to swell. James Robert Parish’s 2007 book Fiasco: A History Of Hollywood’s Iconic Flops revealed that Costner’s hotel room cost $1,800 a night, and that the production had to pay $2.7 million in penalties to unions when food breaks came late. But those were just drops in the ocean compared to Waterworld’s final tally. The movie’s initial $66 million cost had risen to $100 million by the time production began, but over the coming months, as filming dragged on, Waterworld’s final budget would balloon to nearly $180 million (adjusted for inflation, that’s equal to nearly $335 million today).

The film did eventually finish productions, but its problems weren’t over. Relations between Reynolds and Costner, already frayed, broke when the director turned in his cut, which was apparently longer and darker than the star wanted (the New York Daily News claimed Costner wanted a “more heroic” version). The studio sided with their star, and Reynolds walked, later providing Entertainment Weekly with one of the cattiest pull-quotes of all time: “Costner should direct all his own movies. That way he can work with his favorite director and his favorite actor.”

Costner finished editing the film himself, but by then, the bad buzz about Waterworld was already ringing in moviegoers’ ears, thanks in part to an onslaught of negative attention from the press, who’d given the films labels such as “Kevin’s Gate” and “Fishtar.” This surely alarmed Universal, which had assigned the movie a prime slot on the summer-movie release scheduled, and licensed countless Waterworld toys, video games, comic books and other spin-offs.

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Dennis Hopper as the eye-poppingly villainous Deacon in ‘Waterworld’

Still, despite the bad hype, when Waterworld finally opened on July 28th, 1995, reviews were mostly respectable. Newsweek’s David Ansen, among others, called it “a pretty damn good summer movie,” although there were more negative takes too, with the L.A. Times’ Kenneth Turan bemoaning the film’s “flat dialogue, overemphasis on jokeyness, and a plot that, despite all those screenwriters, does not satisfactorily hold together at any number of points.”

And, surprisingly enough, the initial box-office take for Waterworld wasn’t bad: The film took $21 million the first weekend, and eventually got to an $88 million domestic total, taking in nearly twice as much abroad, for a worldwide total of $264 million. But despite Waterworld’s modest theatrical success, respectable home video run, and the occasional hit tie-in — the Waterworld attraction at Universal Studios theme parks remains a draw today — the movie was hardly the pop-culture-conquering, toy-selling phenomenon that the studio (and Costner) needed it to be, and for years, the movie remained a punchline.  

In the ensuing years, Costner and Reynolds have stood by the project: The actor told the The Huffington Post that Waterworld “was flawed, for sure, but overall, it’s a very inventive cool movie,” while Reynolds told the BBC that the film “[wasn’t] any worse or any better than any other picture in its genre.” The pair eventually reconciled as well, reteaming in 2012 for Emmy-winning miniseries The Hatfields & The McCoys.

Whatever its flaws, Waterworld has certainly grown in charm over the years. It has its problems: The languid pacing is more akin to Costner’s beloved Westerns than an action movie (especially in the inessential “extended cut” that surfaced on TV and DVD); the plot, which cribs from Mad Max nearly to the point of copyright violation, makes little sense; and the star’s nearly as blank as his stoic, nameless title character.

And yet for all its script problems and derivative nature, Waterworld still creates a compelling on-screen universe, boasts some impressive design work, and has a sly sense of humor (thanks mostly to Dennis Hopper’s wisecracking, one-eyed villain). It also features some truly exciting action sequences, particularly in the extended atoll attack early in the film.

But what really makes Waterworld stand out is its almost too-prescient focus on our fragile environment: “The ancients did something terrible, didn’t they? To cause all this water?” one character asks, one of several riffs on the dangers of climate change that helps make Waterworld seem so undoubtedly ahead of its time.

Waterworld will likely still be perceived as a flop by the time the polar ice caps melt for real. But perhaps because of the superhero-franchise-heavy, CGI-driven nature of the blockbuster in 2015, the film’s strange, deeply flawed, swing-for-the-fences nature feels almost refreshing today.