'Waterworld' is turning 25 years old. In spite of getting a lukewarm response upon release (from both critics and audiences, it flopped against its enormous budget), it has become a cult classic with a sizable fan following. Revisiting it over two decades later (it's on Netflix now, if you're interested), it still comes across as a 'Mad Max' rip-off. It particularly recalls 'Beyond Thunderdome' in its design and premise of searching for a sanctuary for the young'uns to thrive in. Moreover "Mad" is the optimal description for 'Waterworld', because it's bonkers and ludicrous. But also entertaining.
For those unfamiliar with the plot, 'Waterworld' is set in 2500, on Earth post-apocalypse. Sea levels have risen and now every continent is submerged underwater. The last people living are oddballs, living in rickety floating communities. Some fare better than others, like the Smokers, led by the Deacon (Dennis Hopper), who live on an oil tanker. Then there's the loner Mariner (Kevin Costner), who has a mutation - gills - that allows him to thrive.
The opening scene sees Costner peeing into a plastic container, distilling his own piss, and drinking it. So you know you're in for something terrible or badass.
Like its Mel Gibson counterpart , the action of 'Waterworld' is pretty much all-go from the beginning. The Mariner meets a fellow drifter who, after robbing his lemons, he sacrifices ruthlessly to the bad guys who start chasing them. His distrust of anyone is key to his survival. Thus when Helen (Jeanne Tripplehorn) and little Enola (Tina Majorino) break through his hard exterior - the latter with her cute, innocent drawings, the former with, let's be honest, her nakedness - it's actually quite sweet.
Clocking in at just over 2 hours in running length, there are some great action and chase sequences. But then there's a lot of dumb and drawn-out stuff too. When trading in town, there's sooo much establishing stuff with the girl with the tattoo on her back (Enola) and the woman that cares for her (Helen). When the three escape to sea together, some scenes feel like they'll never end.
And there's plenty in 'Waterworld' that's just completely, weirdly random. There's the 'Wizard of Oz' reference when Old Gregor (Michael Jeter) escapes by air, going too fast to help Enola and Helen into his flying contraption; there's that whole confrontation with the second drifter, with a northern Irish accent (the guy playing him, Kim Coates, is Canadian, by the way), who has also gone mad; and there's that whole bit where the Mariner acts as bait for some massive fish. Also Jack Black is in it.
The film is super violent too. Aside from that first guy being easily sacrificed, there's also the fact that essentially the whole town the Mariner visits gets obliterated. This when there are barely any scraps of humanity still living. Moreover the Mariner threatens Enola and Helen quite a lot, tossing Enola out of his boat at one point, when she can't swim.
The movie is, like its characters, insane.
Regardless, the final action scene, set on the Deacon's tanker, is gripping. It's the feel-good pay-off you want - Costner saves the day, Enola is rescued, and the bad guy meets his doom. The happy ending sees the Mariner find that utopian haven of 'Dryland', a new home for Helen and Enola. But this is Hollywood, and so our hero must return to the wilderness. Not settling down in society but remaining a lone adventurer. Like the classic western ending.
Aside from setting up a world that pulls you in and you really believe in (though hell no, you wouldn't want to live there), 'Waterworld' is an impressive technical accomplishment. You've got a great soundtrack by James Newton Howard (whose long list of impressive credits include working with M. Night Shyamalan and Christopher Nolan; his '90s work including 'Pretty Woman' and 'The Fugitive') which really captures the sense of adventure to the story. You've got a heroic lead in Costner, a crazy as sh** villain in Hopper, and a cute kid you want to be rescued with Enola.
It has to be noted too that the film is directed by none other than Kevin Reynolds. This is the guy who helmed 'Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves', also with Costner; the brilliant 'Count of Monte Cristo'; and, another cult classic, 'Fandango'. Few other directors could have pulled off this hot mess of a movie which, in this writer's opinion, has earned its status as a good bad movie.