Ripping off Mad Max (namely Mad Max’s sequels The Road Warrior) has become something of a cottage industry within the film biz. Steel Dawn, Battletruck, Wheels of Fire, Damnation Alley, 1990: The Bronx Warriors, etc. all may fall under the umbrella term “Maxploitation,” a sub-subgenre of carsploitation/ozploitation that denotes a specified brand of dystopian fiction beneficial to filmmakers looking to work on the cheap. You simply drive out to the desert, dress a bunch of extras in tattered clothing and old sporting equipment and wreck a few junker vehicles. But what happens when your twist on the then tired concept involves water instead of desert? What happens when director Kevin Reynolds and actor Kevin Costner (hot off the financial success of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves) become interested in your project? What happens when your post-apocalyptic yarn, in a sub-genre notorious for micro-budgeting, inflates to what was then (at a whopping $175 mil) the largest budget of all time? Intense tides ahead as we dive into Waterworld.
Set in a future where the melting of the polar icecaps has turned the planet into an aquatic water wonderland, we’re introduced to our web-toed hero the Mariner (Costner of Dance with Wolves and Untouchables fame) as he distills and drinks his own urine. This is literally the opening of the film; he’d make Bear Grylls proud. The Mariner finds himself out of the fish fryer and into the fish fire when, while aboard a seafaring citadel know as “the atoll,” he’s identified as a gill-eared mutation and imprisoned. Our mirthless Mariner manages to make his escape as the atoll comes under attack by a group of pirate marauders known as “the smokers.” The smokers are led by the nefarious Deacon, played to pernicious perfection by the late great Dennis Hopper (Blue Velvet, Easy Rider). The Mariner narrowly escapes the floating fortress with his life yet stowed away on his ship are atoller Helen (The Firm’s Jeanne Tripplehorn) and the young Enola (Napoleon Dynamite’s Tina Majorino) whose tattooed back may hold the cryptic map to mythical dry land.
Whether you count yourself among Waterworld’s growing cult following or simply enjoy the feature as a kitsch novelty, it’s clearly that the film has more to offer than critics of the time were willing to admit. Between its lavish floating set pieces and elaborate stunt work, Waterworld remains quite the cinematic spectacle. Hell, Hopper’s performance alone makes the film a worthwhile watch and while the movie’s ecology message can at times be a tad ham-handed, Reynolds remains a more than competent action director; not quite up there with the likes of James Cameron or John McTiernan, not nearly as bad as Michael Bay, but firmly in Jan de Bont/Renny Harlin territory.
Costner, who was never quite my favorite leading man, functions far better here as a solemn swashbuckling sailor than he ever had as the waffly accented Robin Hood and his trimaran ship remains the oceanic equivalent of the Millennium Falcon. This Merman with No Name antihero, as it were, is more in the spirit of a Clint Eastwood or a Toshiro Mifune than the Midwest matinee idol he came to be identified as.
Arrow Video’s beautiful Blu-ray redux of this under appreciated, underwater, epic comes replete with three cuts of the film (the theatrical, an extended US TV edit featuring 40 minutes of additional footage and the uncensored Ulysses cut), each newly restored from a 4K scan of the original negative. The longer cuts of the film are definitely preferred viewing as they better flesh out characters and offer an extended ending with a twist reminiscent of original Planet of the Apes. Film critic Glenn Kenny details the history of environmental messages in post-apocalyptic cinema and the newly produced feature-length documentary, Maelstrom: The Odyssey of Waterworld, which chronicles the intense production of the film at hand, may very well be better that the film itself. Add to that Arrow’s customary 60 page booklet featuring archival articles and reviews (not to mention new essays by David J. Moore and Daniel Griffith), collectible postcards, a doublesided foldout poster and more. There’s no better time than now to take a hi-def dive into the world of Waterworld.