Is the world rediscovering a lost masterpiece as it flocks (via Netflix) back to “Waterworld?”
Maybe that’s going a bit far, but revisiting this film, which I found fun and often thrilling upon its initial release, is a reminder of what epic movies used to look like, what real ambition could be in an action film and Lord Almighty, was Kevin Costner the Douglas Fairbanks of his day, or what? A man before the mast, because we all look more macho on a sailboat.
He’s the Mariner, a hero with an anti-social attitude, a bitching trimaran and uh gills in a future where climate change (this came out in 1995) has flooded the planet and left its survivors floating around on surviving boats (Fiberglass, man, even the apocalypse can’t kill it.) and pontoon atoll villages.
The biggest “boat” of all? It’s home to the “smokers,” jetski goons led by the one-eyed Deacon, played by Dennis Hopper as if this would be the last time he’d ever get to ask this crazy on celluloid.
“You know, I thought you were stupid, friend. But I underestimated you. You are a total freaking retard!”
Queue “maniacal laugh.”
It was a troubled production, way over budget. Tina Majorino and Jeanne Tripplehorn almost drowned early in the shoot when the stunt trimaran they were on sank. Every review brought that up, including mine, filed several newspapers ago and thus lost. Rewatching it, you don’t have to consider that. But even back then, I thought this was a stitch. I’m a sucker for sailboat movies.
When you’re going big, that’s a risk. I interviewed the late Gregory Peck just as this was about to come out. He was making a farewell tour of “An Evening With Gregory Peck,” and I mentioned the film in light of Peck’s own experiences making “Moby Dick” at sea with John Huston in the ’50s.
“Well,” he chuckled, “I could’ve told them. But where’s the fun in that?”
What’s still glorious about the film 26 years after its release are its action beats — as thrilling as anything ever shot at sea. Chases, sea battles, an air attack (Check out the more famous half of Tenacious D playing a pilot.), and Costner, one of the few action heroes then or now able to stand tall amidst the mayhem and register as heroic, one man against the ugly edges of what’s left of mankind.
His quest? Get “the prodigal girl” (Majorino) to whatever this “map” tattoo on her back has as its destination. But first, he’s got to be talked out of his rational solution to an on-boat water shortage.
“Toss her over the side.”
Director Kevin Reynolds and the production team immerse us in this soggy, aged and worn-out universe of sail, salt water, two-stroke gas engines and something mythic that no one living can remember seeing — “dry land.”
It’s “Road Warrior” at sea, with recycling, soil preservation and “Sailing is more righteous than anything that runs on gas” messaging, and an awful lot of gun, knife and harpoon play.
“If I let you outta here, you’re taking us with you!” Jeanne Tripplehorn’s motherly Helen barks at the Mariner, drowning in a cage sinking in a sewage lagoon and thus unable to haggle.
“Sure,” Costner’s Mariner gulps.
“Nothing’s free in ‘Waterworld!'”
“Don’t just stand there, kill something!”
“What’s that cousin’s name, Chuck? Maybe he doesn’t answer to Chuck. Call’em Charlie, or Charles.”
“Look, it’s the gentleman guppy.”
“Wanna cigarette? You’re never too young to start.”
The script, by Peter Rader and David Twohy, is jokey and kind of all over the place, in terms of the “logic” of this world. Don’t let yourself get caught up in the math, the actual depth of the seas if all the ice melts, the amount of time it would take for humans to grow gills, nonsense like that.
Just lose yourself in adventure, the scale, the sarcastic scope of Hopper’s villainy and the sardonic “reluctant hero” all this rides on.
“Waterworld” is prophetic, cautionary and agenda-driven. It’s also epic and a damned entertaining ride, all two hours and 15 minutes of it.
MPA Rating: PG-13 for some intense scenes of action violence, brief nudity and language
Cast: Kevin Costner, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Tina Majorino, Zakes Mokae, Michael Jeter and Dennis Hopper.
Credits: Directed by Kevin Reynolds, script by Peter Rader, David Twohy. A Universal release (now on Netflix).
Running time: 2:15