Pop culture essays, criticism, fistfights

Best Summer Ever: Waterworld Is Not a Flop, I’ve Seen It

In Best Summer Ever, Jeff ranks the last 31 seasons of summer movies using a complex mathematical equation largely biased toward his personal opinion. You can read about his methods here.

“Nothing’s free in Waterworld.”
-The Mariner, as played by Kevin Costner, Waterworld

In the opening scene of Waterworld, Kevin Costner’s The Mariner pees into a jar, dumps that pee into a complicated filtration device, and then gargles the results. He makes sure to get every last drop, running his finger around the inside of the mug and then rubbing the residue on his gums like a nautical coke fiend.

It’s a scene so simplistic in its staging, and yet it speaks volumes about our mutated antihero and the bleak world he inhabits. Merely by having Costner make into a mason jar, Waterworld director Kevin Reynolds announces that we viewers are, indeed, about to experience something magical and amazing. Waterworld is an epic adventure, a post-apocalyptic western that reverently borrows from Mad Max, the greatest role of Costner’s oft-maligned career, and the most expensive political film ever made.

In 1995, the only summer to produce three Best Picture nominees (and the eventual winner), all films must be judged by the standard of Waterworld.


(#15) 1995
Tickets Sold:   393.8 million (20 of 31)
#1 at the Box OfficeBatman Forever – $184 million gross
Most Critically AcclaimedApollo 13 (#2 at the box office)

Waterworld finished 7th at the box office in summer ’95, bringing in almost $90 million in domestic receipts. But, because of its almost $200 million budget (at the time, the largest in history), Waterworld was considered a flop on the level of Ishtar and Heaven’s Gate. Going by domestic receipts alone that reputation is not entirely unfair; however, unlike the epic flops it is often compared to, Waterworld found a thriving overseas (ha!) market that would help it eventually turn a profit. Also unlike those other films, Waterworld’s troubled production took place during the birth of the information age with the juicy details of its many missteps widely available not just in the entertainment tabloids, but online.

Thanks to detailed coverage of the film’s harrowing production, Waterworld was a flop before it even hit theaters. Beyond nearly doubling its slated budget, there were stories of actors almost drowning, of Reynolds either being fired or walking off set during the last week of production, of Costner staying in a private resort while his crew slept in canoes. Costner – already with the reputation of being an asshole – was further vilified in the press. It seemed the public was rooting for Waterworld to fail. That might not sound unusual in today’s age of snarky internet jerks descending on troubled productions like sharks on chum, but in ’95 productions weren’t yet under constant media scrutiny.

Appropriately, the mediocre Sandra Bullock thriller The Net (#18) released the same weekend as Waterworld. If only the Praetorians had erased all the bad Waterworld news instead of Sandra Bullock’s identity!

Writing a shitty review of Waterworld.

Viewed in a vacuum, does Waterworld deserve its bad reputation? Of course not! Admittedly, it isn’t the most coherent of films, which I chalk up to the 40 minutes cut by nervous studio executives. It fails to deliver on the science-fiction promise of its premise. And, it’s completely humorless, especially Costner’s often cruel and unspeaking antihero.

What it may lack in coherence, inventiveness, and self-awareness Waterworld makes up for in ambition, a quality in short supply during the summer season. While its premise can be boiled down simply to “Mad Max on water,” that very Hollywood high concept leads us to some striking visuals and action sequences that put to shame its contemporaries.

For instance, the Dennis Hopper led Smoker attack on the Atoll is a better structured battle sequence than any in the Academy Award winning Braveheart (#10). Perhaps Waterworld has an unfair advantage here considering that jet-ski stunts will always be more interesting than dudes in kilts running around screaming. I won’t argue that Waterworld is superior to Braveheart, or that Waterworld deserved an Oscar nomination. All the same, the comparison is inevitable based on the films’ similarities – here are two epics, both exceedingly self-serious, both ostensibly helmed by egomaniacs. One went on to be heralded as the best film of the year, the other became a laughingstock. Waterworld remains one of the most brazenly progressive big budget Hollywood films of all time and Braveheart, sadly, has become a favorite of nutjob libertarians.

Good scene, but not better than the Atoll.

Waterworld is bold blockbuster making. Braveheart is not. Neither is the 2nd ’95 film to be nominated for an Oscar. In his review for the Los Angeles Times, Keith Turan said director Ron Howard was “certainly well-suited to the kind of sentimental, middle-of-the-road filmmaking of which Apollo 13 is the epitome.” He meant that as a compliment. Waterworld might fail to emotionally connect (exploit?) its audiences, but it could never be described as middle-of-the-road.

A cynical mind might discern a pattern of pandering Americana in '95’s offerings. What is more red-blooded and American than space exploration? Well, ahem – FREEEEEE-DOMMMMM! – is pretty fucking American, even in its Scottish form.  Or how about the Disney treatment of Pocahontas (#3), wherein a new generation of young theater-goers was educated on how nice we were to the Native Americans? How about Crimson Tide’s (#6) affirmation of the fighting spirit and moral compass of the American soldier? The feel good race relations condescension of Dangerous Minds (#8)?

It’s worth pointing out that we’re on the eve of an election year in ’95, and we’re also in a summer where Bob Dole would begin positioning himself as a culture warrior. That summer, Dole accused Hollywood of producing “nightmares of depravity.” In other summers where big budget action flicks were more prevalent Dole might have had a point. In ’95, Hollywood’s biggest R-rated film was Die Hard: With a Vengeance (#5), and there’s nothing the least bit depraved about John McClane’s crusade against effete terrorists. Dole should’ve gone to more summer films. Against all conservative fear-mongering of a liberal media conspiracy, the films of ’95 are resolutely moderate and bland, most with the political stance that everything is good and America is awesome.

Adorable talking pigs are awesome too. Babe is the 3rd Oscar-nominated summer '95 film. That doesn't tie into this essay at all, but look how cute he is!

Except for Waterworld. Costner was freaking out about global warming before it was hip. Even if the premise of the polar ice caps melting and flooding the entire world is scientifically preposterous, the idea that we’re slowly destroying ourselves and damning our children to a life of sea-slavery and whaleskin pants remains. Furthermore, Hopper’s one-eyed heavy leads his army of degenerates from aboard the Exxon Valdez. And what does Hopper plan to do if he should find dryland before The Mariner and his hippie friends? He’s going to build a resort! So, the apocalypse is man-made and, even 500 years into the future, capitalists are still the villains. Waterworld is a Marxist environmentalist’s wet dream. I have no proof that the prerelease soiling of Waterworld’s reputation was part of a nefarious conservative conspiracy, but I also don’t have any proof that it wasn’t.

(I’d be remiss if I didn’t take a moment to shout out Congo (#9) whose villain is also an evil capitalist, a fact oft-forgotten with all the apes smashing heads.)

Ironically, it was in ’95 that Costner purchased, perhaps with some of his Waterworld money, the technology he would later sell to BP for the Deepwater Horizon clean-up. Maybe that’s how we should remember Waterworld – not as a flop and a failure, but as an overly ambitious blockbuster that would later clean up the Gulf of Mexico.

(31) 2006
(29) 1983
(23) 2007
(21) 1996
(19) 1988
(15) 1995
(14) 1985
(13) 1993
(11) 1990
(10) 1997
(9) 1998

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1 Responses »

  1. big fan of waterworld.