Saturday 31 July 2021

Movie Review: Waterworld (1995)

A post-apocalyptic epic survival adventure, Waterworld is ambitious but also derivative and bloated.

In the future, the ice caps have melted and all the continents are submerged. Survivors drift in ramshackle sailboats or congregate in rudimentary floating atolls, distrustfully trading for scarce resources and searching for the legendary Dryland. The Mariner (Kevin Costner) traverses the oceans in his customized sailboat, and with webbed feet and gills developing behind his ears, he is evolving into a human/fish hybrid. He sails into an atoll to trade, but is treated with hostility due to his mutations. 

When the atoll is attacked by Smokers led by the Deacon (Dennis Hopper), the Mariner escapes and rescues Helen (Jeanne Tripplehorn) and the child Enola, who has a tattoo on her back that may denote Dryland's coordinates. The Mariner is not used to having company and resents the presence of strangers on his boat. The Deacon and his band of goons are in hot pursuit, intent on seizing Enola. The Mariner eventually grows fond of his guests, then has to protect them against the Deacon's attacks as he becomes a reluctant participant in the quest for Dryland.

Essentially a wet version of Mad Max 2, Waterworld was a troubled and over-budget production, with director Kevin Reynolds navigating the adversity (including hurricanes) of filming on open water off the coast of Hawaii. Notwithstanding the familiarity of the material, the outcome is passable. Character definitions and evolutions vary between limited and non-existent and the dialogue is more often than not simply cringey. But the scope is impressive, the representation of civilization's remnants struggling to stay afloat is imaginative, and the action scenes are engaging enough.

The highlights include the Smokers' attack on the atoll, a float plane versus sailboat duel, and a deep underwater dive to demonstrate water's dominance. Despite regular injections of energy, at 135 minutes the pacing is uneven. Reynolds struggles to find the line where enough is enough, slapping on unnecessary prolongations for yet another stunt shot.

As lead protagonist, Kevin Costner's Mariner says few words and is mostly just angry whenever he needs to interact with humans. His brooding presence is suitably larger than life, but his lack of empathy persists deep into the story and creates an emotional void. Dennis Hopper as the Deacon overcompensates, his over-the-top villainous performance dangerously close to dredging up bad vibes from Dune. Jeanne Tripplehorn stays close to a single stance of frustrated determination.

The script (by Peter Rader and David Twohy) does not explain why the polar ice caps melted, but a raucous near-finale on board none other than the floating Exxon Valdez is a non-too-subtle hint. It may be soggy, but Waterworld does see the horizon.

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