It was a warning about a bleak future realized because of global warming. It was a post-apocalyptic action extravaganza. It featured an amazing cast, including actors whose careers would eventually rocket skyward. At the time, it was the most expensive movie ever made. It was the 1994 action adventure epic Waterworld starring Kevin Costner, and it’s coming to Netflix soon.
In the early ’90s, Kevin Costner was Hollywood royalty. He won over legions of critics and audiences alike by starring in and directing the western epic Dances With Wolves. He helped make Bryan Adams’ (Everything I Do) I Do It For You the most inescapable ballad of 1991 with the fantasy action film Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. He met success again that year as Oliver Stone’s hero in the conspiracy theory ensemble JFK and in 1992 audiences were mesmerized by the romance between Costner and Whitney Houston in The Bodyguard.
Waterworld proved to be the film that killed Kevin Costner’s streak. He played The Mariner in the film — a survivor in a world almost completely covered in ocean. What remains of society survives in isolated floating colonies called atolls where ignorance, superstition, and fear reign supreme. Preying on all the survivors are merciless raiders led by the brutal Deacon (Dennis Hopper) who call themselves the Smokers. Based in the rusted hulk of the Exxon Valdez — a real-life oil tanker responsible for an infamous 1989 oil spill — the Smokers steal, murder and — true to their name — chain-smoke cigarettes. How they’re able to find dry cigarettes or the means to light them in a world covered with water remains a mystery.
When we first meet Kevin Costner’s the Mariner, all he wants to do is be left alone to make his way in a hostile world, but he becomes a hostage when it’s discovered he’s a mutant — a man who was born with gills and webbed feet. Soon, he finds himself on the run with other survivors like Helen (Jeanne Tripplehorn) and the young Enola (Tina Majorino), in a desperate search for Dryland — a place that the Mariner insists is nothing but a myth.
Waterworld was not an easy movie to make. A long series of setbacks inflated the budget from the original $100 million to $175 million, earning it the title of most expensive movie ever made — a title it held on to until it was broken by Titanic. Among the various dramas and production calamities going on behind the camera was director Kevin Reynolds quitting the film three months before the premiere, and incidents that came close to killing cast members.
As reported by People, during Waterworld production in May 1994 Jeanne Tripplehorn and then 12-year-old Tina Majorino were thrown from a sailboat into the ocean when the bowsprit snapped. Luckily, nearly a dozen divers were on hand to rescue them from the water. That December it was Kevin Costner who nearly went to the big cornfield baseball field in the sky when he was strapped to a sailboat mast and was suspended 40 feet in the air while filming a stunt. Winds picked up and Costner was thrown against the mast, with the crew unable to help. Because it was feared the actor would be in more danger if they tried to lower him, the crew simply watched for a half hour until the winds died down.
For all Kevin Costner and the rest of the cast and crew endured, Waterworld became synonymous with “flop” for years even though, all things considered, the film actually made a nice pile of money. In North America it grossed $88 million dollars against its $175 million budget. But as Deadline Hollywood pointed out in 2015, with international ticket sales and home release sales counted, Waterworld eventually earned a tidy profit.
Whether it made a profit or not, the critics tore it to pieces and it’s only because of more recent interest in the film that it’s managed a rating as high as 48% on Rotten Tomatoes. Part of the problem was that Waterworld at times is a film that doesn’t know what it wants to be. On one hand Kevin Costner’s Mariner — like the titular hero of the Mad Max films that Waterworld took a lot of its inspiration from — is no shining knight. In the opening scene, he laughs about a rival scavenger being killed by Smokers. Later he almost kills the young Enola when he throws her into the ocean and comes close to selling Helen to a drifter to be sexually assaulted. Yet, in spite of all this, Waterworld tries to be an upbeat, swashbuckling adventure, only to learn you can’t be Mad Max and Pirates of the Caribbean at the same time.
If nothing else, however, Waterworld is worth watching for glimpses of then new talent who hadn’t yet come into their own. For example, the drifter Kevin Costner’s character almost sells Helen to is played by Kim Coates, who would later become the fan-favorite Tig on the crime drama Sons of Anarchy. There’s also a Smoker pilot with hardly any lines who just barely survives an encounter with the Mariner played by the future rocker and funny man Jack Black.
To judge for yourself whether or not Kevin Costner’s Waterworld should sink or swim, check it out on Netflix, starting this coming Friday.