Waterworld at 20: We need to Parley about Mariner

The Mariner sinks - Waterworld at 20

It’s the summer of resurgent dystopia – so how could Jokerside ignore the 20th anniversary of Waterworld. Blockbuster folly, by the numbers, laugh-out loud… It’s the masthead film that has everything.


What better time to have a big birthday than during this glorious resurgence of Hollywood dystopia. The Apes may be having a year off, but they’ve led a charge that’s dodged the turgid eco-sci-fi of Oblivion and Elysium to lead Mad Max and Terminator back to the multiplexes. In case you’re wondering, one of those last two was a classic.

Many films have been hit by the curse of water, but of the two most notable examples James Cameron’s Titanic (1997) rose to unprecedented success and… Kevin Reynold’s Waterworld (1995) will never lose its disaster tag. For all the wrong reasons. Of course now we all know that it wasn’t the “Kevin’s Gate” critics were quick to label it – that “Kevin” being interchangeable between Reynold and star/producer of the moment Kevin Costner. It made some money, it really did. But somehow, that was even worse, forever banning it from pity lists, a true cult following and even sneaking into snobbish, art-house speakeasies of dumbing down.

It’s a film everyone loves to hate, and that’s precisely why those immensely watchable two hours are bloody great.

Above Board – Emerging from Sherwood

How could they follow that myth-compounded action spectacular?

The two Kevs had recently emerged from the forest of ebullience surrounding Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. Yes, a great film: It even had Brian Blessed in it. How could they follow that myth-compounded action spectacular with its huge sets, rather uncharismatic gruff leading man, stellar comic violence, dash of supernatural, mind-wrenching end credit song and iconic villain?  Waterworld of course! It had all the above. Just without the song.

Although James Newton Howard did provide a suitably pelting percussive score. That’s one of the first things you notice, about the same time as the vast swath of ocean and just after the rather droll use of the globe in the Universal Studios logo to show the ice caps melting. And what better person to tell us it’s a whole new world than Mr Voiceover himself, the legendary Hal Douglas earning one of his easiest cheques. We’d soon find out that main antihero the Mariner wouldn’t stoop to provide a voiceover himself as we zoomed in on his rusty but fitted-out trimaran and Costner’s backside.

Man o’War – The Mariner

“Well do something, I hate sails”

What a wonderfully awkward bastard he is. Sulky, stroppy – cool as a fish. There’s even the prolonged part at the end of the second act, his trimaran’s burnt to a crisp about to be rescued by Gregor’s balloon – when he just looks like he just doesn’t want to be there. Brilliant. But first it’s important to address the huge elephant in the room, the one called Max. Yes, this film is, for the most part set on water, but it’s remarkably similar to 1981’s Mad Max 2. Well, why not borrow from the best – the smokers look familiar, their tugs have car chassis, their leader couldn’t perish in a more Mad Max way and water – pure hydro – may as well be oil. But when it comes to the main man, this gruff mariner is a different kettle of fish. He was born into this world as everyone was, and the only thing driving him not remotely mad is that he’s the only one who knows what came before. As he puts it: “The world wasn’t created in a deluge, it was covered by it”.

“Well I’ll be damned, it’s the gentleman guppy”

His lack of libido is down to mutation, or as the comics might have had it an attempt at genetic manipulation, gifting him working gills and webbed toes. He’s not stylish, doesn’t carry off the shades or leather and he talks way more than Max. He even talks to kids. He might be drifting around endlessly on a rather souped-up vehicle, but he’s not gutted of all emotion as the film’s middle act shows – he’s just dangerously pragmatic. And really, there’s something rather affecting about a guy who’s happy to sit there with nothing to trade when you know full well he can trundle down to the seabed streets and pillage some loot.

Splice the Mainbrace – Life at sea

“Nothing’s free in Waterworld”

Ah yes, as one effecting sequence shows the old cities of earth have been submerged for 500 years. The effects here are as great there as they are throughout, with CGI as typically unobtrusive as it was in the mid-1990s. In the damp devastated streets there’s a submarine just lying there – presumably it drifted across rather than its crew being taken by surprise. Up above there may be atolls for refineries and barter outposts for the Bartertown of Mad Max, but between them there’s are drifter rules. The language of the blue is Portu-Greek, all very maritime, and there’s a strict code of trade. True, even with a code in place most exchanges go down the Mad Max pan, but a major hint there is: Never take a man’s fruit. Narratively, it’s the perils of being one of those drifters and one gruesome encounter in particular that causes the Mariner’s heart to go a little mushy.

Raise the Cro’Jack – Deacon Blue

“Don’t just stand there, kill something!”

It’s the concept of oil that takes us aboard the floating bastion Exxon Valdez, the base of villain… The Deacon. Yes, it really is that ship – why not? Despite being beached for dismantling in 2012, the ice caps melted a little before that…  The Saint of Valdez captain Joe Hazelwood wryly sits above Deacon, a self-professed charlatan messiah in a crude distortion of Catholicism.

In the huge tank of the ship is a dwindling oil reserve manned by a lone, vitamin D deficient boatman that any other film would gut for his inner-Beckett. He’s destined for a gripping ending, a whimper of surely Smoker-blasphemous “Oh thank God” as he sees a flare drop to the tank – but it’s his earlier comedy highlight that brings the best out of Deacon. Ah yes, Dennis Hopper on full eye-popping, side of ham form. Just brilliant. True, he’d been Frank Booth for Lynch by then, he’d been Bowser (King Koopa) and in one year’s time he’d make a hell of a dent in the Speed-ometer. But this is the real villainous deal. There’s hardly any scenery to chew, but he manages it. He’s a wonderful monster –like a walking prosthetic, even before he gets the empty eye-socket he’s intent on showing off at every opportunity. His rhetoric is brilliant. Almost every utterance is a one-liner – which he lets his Kansas via California accent roll around. Hell, if one accent could survive the 500 years since the deluge, let it be that one.

From broad comedy to threatening, well, comedy – he’s forever watchable. And all from that opening onslaught on the Atoll, who can forget when he’s trying to get the out of control gun man Chuck’s attention…

“Maybe he doesn’t answer to ‘Chuck‘ – call him ‘Charles’ Charles!?”

Walking the Plank – Subversion and suprise

“Nothing like a good smoke when you miss your mum”

Deacon’s key to why Waterworld is just so watchable – he anchors it in a remarkably constant tone. There is absolutely nothing to suggest that the Deacon could hold on to power. Well, except the fact that he proves twice that he can shoot really well – perhaps the only Smoker who can. Oh, and he’s pretty much always right – unbelievably tracking down the mariner’s trimaran with ease, and surely ahead of schedule. This isn’t a film afraid to subvert like that – see the brilliantly shot plane sequence that first gives away the Mariner’s whereabouts. There’s a real sense of danger, especially when the pilot, unbelievably, shoots through the harpoon just before the Mariner can dispatch him. A really lovely touch is Enola drawing the harpoon in the plane as it happens, marked for posterity on the hull the Mariner is intent on Careening. Almost as good as Enola’s later myth creation aboard the Valdez as mariner starts his take-down. It’s not that easy to build layers of water.

And the sea itself is another great example – there’s barely an animal seen in the huge oceans… until the surprising cameo of a particularly large sea eater. And later, what we all hoped when Hopper mentioned tracers – two parallel dorsal fins.

“So gullible, ha, ha!”

Hopper’s Deacon is hardly a villain who’s read a different script from everyone else. There are great jump-cuts, from the Mariner’s unique fishing tactics to the comic hair chopping. Bouncing from tension to comedy in a couple of shots. And on the side of the heroes there’s always Michael Jeter’s Gregor, a broad Geppetto to the young Enola – the plot’s MacGuffin.

Oh for an Azimuth Circle – Waterworld on paper

“Well you’re a fool to believe in something you’ve never seen before”

Or rather the MacGuffin’s tattooed on Enola’s back. It’s introduced by a man who looks remarkably like Jeremy Clarkson – the map to dry land of course, no one had set a new land speed record for centuries. That knowledge is imparted to Deacon’s number two just as Mariner arrives… Waterworld may employ simple and rapid plot propulsion but it does it with the might of Poseidon.

Yeah the script. As we now know Joss Whedon was pulled in for seven weeks of “hell” as he was confronted with a final 40 pages that had barely a glimpse of the sea in it. Just one of his horrid Hollywood experiences during the 1990s – setting a tone that would arguably continue up to the recent and not exactly plain sailing Avengers: Age of Ultron. His script notes on a script that rather misses the point are inarguable, and though some brilliance shines through it’s easy to believe that no one was really listening. Why have a mutated hero and not use him – when we see Mariner swim, you wonder why he likes boats so much. Still, as a fighter who’s surely unbeatable underwater he had to be kept away from it. Other narrative mis-steps remain, like taking a trip fathoms down to the ocean floor just after escaping the Smoker fleet’s Star Trek II trap. Oh, and a remarkable amount of downtime that takes us away from the villain in the middle. There are also some lovely (gruesome) parts that don’t have a chance to sizzle on the screen for long enough, like the religion that dovetails with the Atoll’s recycling of human dead.

“Dry land is not just our destination, but it is our destiny!”

Overall, even I have to concede that solving the riddle of the map by working out that it’s in Hindu-Arabic numerals and the Earth’s poles have reversed is a bit of a one-line killer. When we reach that promised dry-land – and Heaven knows where that’s supposed to be, it’s rather a surprise too sink foot on some sand with at least the promise of Utopia. Was it ever in doubt? Well, who’d expect that extraordinary Tarzan-like reveal of Enola’s parent’s skeletal remains – pulling humanity from the Greek myth seafaring of the Deacon’s world? And using your daughter as a map – well, that’s something else…

Dead man’s chest – Spending money

“You’re not supposed to go yet! Infernal machine!”

But what Waterworld really succeeds at doing, unlike a lot of blockbusters, is put a lot its astounding $172 million budget on screen. Trucks on boats, water cannons, fire catapults. The money’s all there to see. Sea plane, jet ski ramps, jet skis hidden below the sea, the Young Sherlock-style hot air balloon of Gregor. The gadgets and machines that line Mariner’s boat and that hilarious taxi that tootles through the Valdez, from which Deacon deigns to throw cigarettes at his people. The atoll, the rusted Valdez itself, the oars, the flares! There’s plenty of humour in Reynold’s shots, like Mariner scooping up his tomato plant like Indy’s hat. And with the big sky everywhere you look, Reynolds even manages to pull some great performances out of that perennially shy performer: the sun.


“Children of the provider, citizens of the good ship”

Waterworld may never escape its reputation, but it’s never going to disappear. There’s a dash of Snake Pliskin, a helluva lot of Max but essentially it’s a pirate film. Eight years later Pirates of the Caribbean would pull a neat trick on the two Kevs, taking set-pieces and settings from Waterworld while hitting many of the narrative beats of Prince of Thieves. And that’s a real anomaly at the pirate box office, a very successful one. As dystopia has risen again to remind us that it’s still around sunken cities and post-apocalyptic action will continue to grace the big screen.

And really, for all the criticism, let’s not forget that the three Universal Studios are still running Waterworld attractions to this day. And inventive side-effect from an inventive film.

Never forget Waterworld’s last line: “It’s more than that” – and so it is.

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