Waterworld [Limited Edition]

Studio: Arrow Video

Feb 13, 2019 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share


Remembered today for briefly holding the title for most expensive movie ever made, and for being the first of a one-two punch of big-budget stinkers – alongside The Postman – that knocked Kevin Costner from atop Hollywood’s A-list, a cult audience has grown around 1995’s Waterworld in the decades since its release. A new, inarguably impressive three-disc special edition has arrived to help us assess whether that attention is purely out of viewers’ morbid fascination with an infamous cinematic trainwreck, or if Waterworld has perhaps aged better than its reputation would lead us to believe.

Hundreds of years after the melting of the polar ice caps, the world as we know it has been buried under water. Some humans have survived; others have evolved. Enter The Mariner (Kevin Costner), a solitary seaman with webbed toes and gills behind his ears, allowing him to breathe underwater. He sails the endless oceans on a tricked-out pontoon, gathering dirt and other junk from the ocean floor to trade with the rubes living in the floating cities. In one such stopover the city is raided by smokers – pirates who ride jet skis and chain-smoke centuries-old cigarettes – and The Mariner just narrowly escapes with two stowaways: Enola (Napoleon Dynamite’s Tina Majorino), an outspoken ragamuffin with a mysterious map tattooed on her back, and Helen (Jeanne Tripplehorn), her adoptive mother. The smokers’ one-eyed leader, The Deacon (Dennis Hopper), will stop at nothing to kidnap the girl, believing the map leads to the fabled Dryland. The Mariner becomes their reluctant protector.

Much of the movie alternates between being a waterlogged Road Runner cartoon – with our heroes repeatedly escaping a series of traps laid by the Deacon – and endless scenes of The Mariner bickering with Helen until the inevitably fall in love (or, at least, Helen succumbs to a form of Stockholm syndrome.) A lengthy, action-driven finale closes out the film but has a noticeably different feel from everything that came before it and that’s likely because the final act wasn’t written until production was well underway, as we learn from the bonus documentary in this new edition.

Waterworld would simply have been a semi-decent action film if every idea it put forward wasn’t so colossally dumb. Any high concept sci-fi movie will ask its viewers to suspend a little bit of their disbelief to buy into the premise, but if you dare stop suspending your disbelief in Waterworld for even a second it may result in a nosebleed. Why is Kevin Costner the only mutant we see? How did hundreds of centuries-old jet skis survive the apocalypse? If Enola was discovered as a baby with the tattoo on her back, how come it’s not all deformed now that she’s a tween? If crops are so rare that fertile dirt is the world’s most valuable commodity, where does the Deacon get his endless supply of cigarettes and Jack Daniels? Never mind that if all of the ice on Earth melted, though catastrophic, ocean levels would only rise a little more than 200 feet, leaving much of the world’s continental inlands unsubmerged. There’s nothing wrong with a movie that asks you to stop thinking and just enjoy the spectacle, but with Waterworld there’s so much which doesn’t make sense that you need to work very hard at ignoring all of it. That’s not an impossible feat to pull off, but it is an exhausting one.

It doesn’t quite gel together tonally, either, as if the filmmakers never settled on whether they were telling an ecological fable or a tongue-in-cheek, popcorn actioner. This is most prevalent in the performances, which are all over the place. Costner himself seems to be the only one taking the film dead seriously: there’s not an ounce of humor to be found in his irritated, grunting fish-man. Meanwhile, almost everyone else acts as if they’re appearing in a Terry Gilliam flick, with winking, over-the-top turns. Dennis Hopper especially gives a crazed performance, even by his unique standards; The Deacon is a character that exists somewhere between Blue Velvet’s Frank Booth and Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2’s Lefty Enright on the Hopper Insanity Scale. With how muted and reserved Costner is compared to everyone surrounding him, you start to wonder if Nicolas Cage might have been better-cast as Waterworld’s leading man. (The answer is yes, probably.)

That leaves us with the action scenes which, undeniably, are well-done. Almost everything was shot practically: there are lots of water stunts with jet skis leaping over explosions, planes circling boats, and Kevin Costner swinging around his sails. It’s no wonder the movie was so expensive and difficult to shoot, considering how much of it was done on floating sets built on open water. All of the waterbound action is stunning, if silly. The finale, however, which is set on an oil tanker, looks pretty underwhelming in comparison. (That set was built on land, and filming happened so deep into production that those involved appear to have been eager to get it all over with.)

Arrow Video’s hefty Waterworld special edition includes three different cuts of the movie. There’s the 135-minute version that was released in theaters; a TV version that adds over 40 minutes to the runtime; and an even longer “Ulysses” cut that adds back to the TV the stuff that was considered too spicy for broadcast. We’re of the opinion that if you’re already going to watch two-plus hours of Waterworld, you might as well go for the full three hours. 

Chief among the three-disc set’s heavily-packed extra features is Maelstrom: The Odyssey of Waterworld, a new, feature-length retrospective documentary, which chronicles the entire process of how an idea which began as a low-budget Mad Max knock-off snowballed into the most expensive studio film of its era. Directed by the ever-reliable Daniel Griffith of Ballyhoo Pictures, it’s a fascinating document of Murphy’s Law in frequent effect. Maelstrom spends a lot of time with the people behind the camera, who go into great detail on the difficulties they faced in shooting their overambitious action movie. In numerous regards Waterworld was the victim of horrendous timing. In just three more years, the technology developed for Titanic would make computer-generated water a possibility, sparing Waterworld’s crew from shooting on open sea, and no doubt saving them a gigantic portion of their budget and set-up times. Additionally, the CGI that Waterworld did use wasn’t quite up to the standards that would come in the next few years. (One scene in an underwater city looks worse than what you see in cheap direct-to-Syfy features, and one pivotal moment involving an explosion and a bungee cord has to be one of the most laughably awful-looking effects of any ‘90s studio blockbuster.) If Griffith’s documentary makes anything clear, Waterworld didn’t set out to be the mega-million-dollar disaster that it’s remembered as today – though, the decision to shoot on water certainly didn’t help their cause. If you have any interest in learning just how much can go sour while making a Hollywood blockbuster, Maelstrom is an essential companion to Waterworld.

When deciding whether you’ll indulge in this uber-deluxe limited edition or a slimmed-down one that will surely release once this version runs out of stock, you’ll need to look inside yourself and ask just how much Waterworld you really need in your life. Besides the three cuts of the movie, the limited edition comes housed in a heavy-duty, fantastic-looking slipcase with postcards, a double-sided poster, and a 60-page booklet full of essays and concept art. (Our favorites among these were pieces on the Waterworld merchandising and video games, also by Griffith, and a tribute to the film written by World Gone Wild and The Good, the Tough, and the Deadly author david j. moore.) In either case Waterworld is probably as bad as you remember it being, but Arrow has done an exceptional job of providing informative materials that walk viewers through how one of the ‘90s biggest flops came to be that way. If that sounds compelling to you, this release is the best possible reason we can imagine recommending anyone dip their toes back into Waterworld.

(mvdshop.com/products/waterworld-limited-edition-blu-ray)




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