As ambitious as it was expensive, “Waterworld” is widely remembered as one of biggest blockbuster misfires of its time. The film blew through its $172 million budget ($235 million after marketing) and netted a meager $88 million at the North American box office. 25 years later, many of us have developed preconceived notions about the merits of the film itself, choosing to accept the box office failure as being synonymous with film failure.
But few have taken the time to rewatch “Waterworld” in its entirety. Those that do may be pleasantly surprised. Make no mistake, this film is riddled with problems, but its ambition seems to be ahead of its time even if the film itself is somehow perfect 90s fodder. It is the Nickelback of movies; the default is to hate it blindly, but it’s not nearly as bad as we say it is.
“Waterworld” is essentially “Mad Max” on water. in the year 2500, all of the ice caps have melted causing the sea level to rise to 7500 ft and submerging all continental land deep underwater. The post apocalyptic survivors have long forgotten what life is like on land, living in floating communities called atolls. We follow an antihero known as The Mariner (Kevin Costner), a drifter who navigates the sea making trades and encountering shady characters. After being forced to save a woman and a young girl with a possible map to the mythical “Dryland” our hero must flee from the pirate like Smokers who are looking to kidnap the girl and be the first to find land themselves.
It’s difficult to decide where to start with unpacking “Waterworld.” As stated, the film feels simultaneously ahead of its time and trapped in its time. For the latter, the very plot and casting of the film is classically 90s. choosing Kevin Costner as the lead protagonist and an over the top Dennis Hopper as you antagonist is perfect 1995 hope of box office success.
But for its ambition, I can’t help but draw comparisons to “Fury Road” for its spectacle. “Waterworld” sports some of the most impressive practical effects and stunts of the times, unparalleled by any film released around it. With hindsight being 20/20, you have to appreciate its boldness when you consider its similar successors like Fury Road. The 2015 film was praised and lauded for its effects and unique storytelling, and one can’t help but wonder if this film could have received a fraction of that praise were it released 20 years later. The greatness of technical achievements seem to have been lost on 90s audiences, leading to its initial failures at the box office.
To say that “Waterworld” is as good as “Mad Max: Fury Road” would be an insult to the latter, especially when it comes to its performances and overall plot. While “Waterworld” excels with its visuals, it doesn’t quite hold up beyond that. It isn’t as purposeful as Fury Road, making some odd plot choices that bog the film down rather than move it along. The idea of The Mariner being a mutated fish man may seem to make sense on paper, but something gets lost in translation when it becomes an actual plot device on screen. Likewise, questions regarding a seemingly endless supply of crude oil and the Wizard of Oz steampunk airship are all ideas that may seem clever but ultimately end up being rather silly. But that’s also what makes it so perfect for 1995. The fact that the Smokers have planes but never discover land until the airship sails off into the skies carrying our heroes are the kinds of plot holes that are befitting for its era.
As a last comparison, “Waterworld” is also penalized for being far too long. With a runtime of 135 minutes, it tests the strength of its already simple and bizarre premise. There is a lot of filler here, much of it giving too much screen time Costner sailing around the water yelling at the child (Tina Majorino) to stop coloring on his boat. There is easily an hour of footage that could be cut without anything being lost. The film may be too ambitious for its own good, burning through cash believing its own hype before its release. When it comes to the sheer spectacle, the gamble pays dividends and certainly holds up over time. However, its length exposes the films flaws with its plot and characters.
Upon a rewatch, I think the general public has been too hard on “Waterworld.” There’s a lot to enjoy despite what you think you remember, even just for the sheer admiration of its technical works. Its far from perfect, and many aspects of the belong in the 90s. But the ambition that puts it ahead of its time balance out the bad, making it a film you should watch again with 25 years of film to perhaps change your opinion.
Or maybe you’re content with the show at Universal Studios being the only good “Waterworld” out there.