'Waterworld' Is Known As a Massive Hollywood Failure. Really, It Was Ahead of Its Time.

Chris Nashawaty
Photo credit: Elaine Chung
Photo credit: Elaine Chung

From Esquire

Like a pack of ghoulish spectators craning their necks at a five-car pile-up, the press had already started calling it Fishtar…and Kevin’s Gate…and “the most expensive gamble in movie history.” This was long before anyone had even seen a single frame of the finished film, mind you. Still, the collective sense of Tinseltown schadenfreude was off the charts. And when it did finally hit theaters, the reactions of both the critics and the audience were brutal. The movie: Kevin Costner’s 1995 post-apocalyptic turkey Waterworld, of course. And it opened 25 years ago today.

Like any $180 million ego trip—especially one top-lined by a guy who America had decided was overdue for a crash-and-burn bit of karmic comeuppance—Waterworld was doomed to fail before it ever stood a chance. For months, the tabloids had chronicled the film’s ever-escalating budget, its seemingly endless string of production delays, and the off-screen trials of its star, Costner, who’d become ensnarled in a messy private divorce from his wife at the time and an even messier public one from his Waterworld director, Kevin Reynolds. In retrospect, there was really no way that it couldn’t have become the biggest cinematic folly of the ‘90s. But let me propose a possibly heretical idea: What if Waterworld isn’t actually that bad? What if it’s actually…kind of good?

Look, I know what you’re thinking. That this is just another one of those insincere, contrarian hot takes where a critic goes to bat for some dinged-up piece of pop-culture flotsam in the hopes of getting a few clicks. If I wasn’t writing this, I’d probably be thinking that, too. But I’m dead serious. I remember seeing Waterworld on opening day 25 years ago and thinking it wasn’t all that terrible. And after re-watching it for the first time earlier this week, I think it’s quite a bit better than that. I want to be clear, I don’t think that Waterworld is some misunderstood masterpiece. But I am convinced that enough time has gone by that it deserves its day in the cinematic court of appeals. So I guess you could consider this is the case for the defense.

For a project that would end in ignominy, Waterworld actually began in irony. The film that would go down as the most expensive in Hollywood history grew out of a pitch meeting in, where else, the offices of the notoriously cheap movie producer, Roger Corman. Peter Rader was a Harvard grad with ambitions to direct. And as he sat in the office of one of Corman’s development execs one day in the late ‘80s, he was told that if he could write a Mad Max rip-off, there might be a South African investor willing to finance it. When Rader left the meeting, the idea began to take seed in his brain and slowly grew into something bigger—and more expensive—Thunderdome on water. When he went back to Corman’s offices, he was told that his new idea sounded too pricey. It might even cost as much as $5 million! Corman & Co. were out.

Rader went off and fleshed the idea out on his own as a spec script. And in 1989, he sold it to producer Lawrence Gordon (The Warriors, 48 Hrs., Predator). Seven drafts later, it found its way into the hands of Costner. He liked it. And so did Reynolds, who had directed Costner in the 1985 road comedy Fandango. Before the two could team up on Waterworld, however, they went off and made 1991’s Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. During that film the two had had a falling out in the editing room. A power play, really. And they stopped speaking, with Reynolds walking off the project all together.

Photo credit: Ben Glass/Universal/Kobal/Shutterstock
Photo credit: Ben Glass/Universal/Kobal/Shutterstock

Now, for most sane people that sort of clash might have been seen as an omen that they shouldn’t work together again any time too soon. But Costner and Reynolds both wanted to make Waterworld, so they decided to bury the hatchet—kind of. In June of 1994, the two headed off to Hawaii to start filming their epic about a future after the ice caps had melted and the world was covered in nothing but ocean. Drinkable water and oil are precious commodities. People live on garbage atolls. There’s a gang of villains called Smokers (led by a bald Dennis Hopper behind an eyepatch and a Foghorn Leghorn accent). There’s a 10-year-old girl/messiah figure named Enola (Tina Majorino) with a map of a mythical Eden called Dryland tattooed on her back. She’s protected by a woman named Helen (Jeanne Tripplehorn). And finally, there’s a mysterious drifter on a catamaran named Mariner (Costner), who has webbed toes and vaginal gill slits behind his ears. He also drinks his own pee, but that’s neither here nor there. The Smokers want the girl; a reluctant Mariner wants to protect the girl; and everyone wants the girl to lead them to Dryland.

Photo credit: Ben Glass/Universal/Kobal/Shutterstock
Photo credit: Ben Glass/Universal/Kobal/Shutterstock

This, in short, is the plot of Waterworld. But beneath all of its George Miller-goes-to-Sea World window dressing, Rader (and about five additional screenwriters, including David Twohy and Joss Whedon) also managed to conjure a pretty ahead-of-its-time Al Gore fever dream about global warming, dwindling natural resources, and the three R’s: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. It’s a stunningly ambitious screenplay that manages to say a lot between the lines when it’s not stepping on its own feet. It’s also an odd project for a big-conglomerate studio like Universal to wager nearly $100 million on (which was its original greenlight budget).

Reynolds’ shooting schedule called for 96 days. But as storms repeatedly wreaked havoc on the movie’s pricey floating sets and ambitions ratcheted up rather than scaled down, cameras would keep rolling for 166 days in all, and the budget would nearly double. When they finally returned to L.A. to edit their footage, Reynolds and Costner clashed in the editing room yet again. Past, it seemed, was prologue. Costner, who now had a Best Directing Oscar under his belt thanks to Dances with Wolves, wasn’t the kind of guy to take a backseat. And once again, Reynolds walked off the film. Said Reynolds later, “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.”

That’s all backstory. And reading it, you might reach the conclusion: Of course, Waterworld was dead on arrival. But all you have to do is go back and look at the tortured, super-expensive production story on any James Cameron film to understand that not all nightmare shoots automatically lead to box-office disasters. But in the public’s mind at least, Waterworld was already toast. And yet, I’d argue that there’s a lot in the movie to like…if not love.

The ecological themes in Waterworld have proven to be prescient, and Rader and Twohy’s screenplay is a pretty remarkable feat of world-building. Some of it is hokey, to be sure. But even some of Blade Runner’s world-building is a little hokey, too. The high-seas action set pieces have a swashbuckling Indiana Jones vibe thanks to the film’s practical, pre-CGI stunts and James Newton Howard’s rollicking, trumpet-blast score. Costner, Tripplehorn, and Majorino are all affecting, even if the relationship between latter two feels a little too Ripley and Newt from Aliens. And the Road Warrior-meets-Brazil steampunk aesthetic is pure dystopian eye candy. You’ve probably noticed I’m referencing a lot of other (better) movies here, but when Waterworld isn’t original, it’s at least borrowing from some primo sources. As for the budget, personally I don’t care what a movie costs. It’s not coming out of my pocket. But I’ll say his for Reynolds and Costner, they put every dollar on the screen. It’s as busy and evocative as a Bosch painting.

Honestly, the only thing that really doesn’t work for me in Waterworld is Dennis Hopper as the leader of the Smokers, Deacon. In almost every phase of his career (even the black-out one), Hopper turned in performances that were masterclasses and others that were god-awful. This is one of the god-awful ones. He’s so corny and cartoony and over the top, he doesn’t share scenes, he mugs them at gunpoint. Some of the other actors that were reportedly considered for Hopper’s role include Gene Hackman, James Caan, Gary Oldman, Laurence Fishburne, Samuel L. Jackson, and Gary Busey. And I can picture all of them giving more interesting performances than Hopper’s—even Busey, whose ‘Mr. Joshua’ in Lethal Weapon shouldn’t be dismissed.

In the end, Waterworld would mark the beginning of a rough stretch for Costner’s charmed career—one that hit its nadir with yet another post-apocalyptic message movie, 1997’s The Postman. But contrary to popular opinion, Waterworld wasn’t the disaster it’s always been painted as in the press. Yes, the critics dogpiled on it and audiences in America mostly stayed away. But the movie ended up making back its production costs once international receipts, home video sales, and TV licensing were factored in. It wasn’t exactly Titanic, but it wasn’t Fishtar or Kevin’s Gate either. I’m not saying that Waterworld should have been nominated for a bunch of Oscars. Not by a longshot. I guess what I am saying, though, is that if you give it an honest shot today, minus all of the white noise that accompanied its release 25 years ago, then I think you’ll end up agreeing that it at least didn’t deserve as many Razzie nominations as it got.

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