The idea behind the “Don’t Watch It, John!” series is to find cinema that’s so rotten, so foul, so incredibly fetid that no other human being would dare recommend it to another human being. For this entry in the series, I’ve shaken things up a bit. I chose a film that I’ve already seen, albeit not since 1996- Waterworld (1995).
What is Waterworld?
The IMDb plot description: In a future where the polar ice caps have melted and most of Earth is underwater, a mutated mariner fights starvation and outlaw “smokers,” and reluctantly helps a woman and a young girl try to find dry land.
I don’t remember too much from the first time I saw it in 1996. I remember Kevin Costner drinking his own urine. I remember thinking the movie was awful. I vaguely remember it bombing at the box office and some critics calling it “Fishtar”, a clever nod to fellow box office bomb Ishtar (1986).
Who stars in this cinematic monstrosity? There are three major names of note. Kevin Costner is the protag, Dennis Hopper is the villain, and Jeanne Tripplehorn (of HBO’s Big Love) is the female lead. Jack Black is also in it, although only very briefly.
The Stats: Surprisingly, IMDb users have given it an aggregate 5.8 out of 10. Rotten Tomatoes places it firmly as rotten with a score of 42% fresh. RT audience members are slightly more kind, giving it a still-rotten score of 46%. However, 7 of the 9 “Top Critics” reviews are fresh. Between the favorable reviews among top critics and the 5.8 out of 10 on IMDb, had I improperly judged Waterworld?
The Review: To put it as succinctly as I can, no- I had not improperly judged Waterworld and I don’t know what the hell 7 of those 9 critics were thinking. It aims very, very high, but misses in spectacular fashion. The concept itself is a good one. The seeds are there for a science fiction classic. I can understand why it was given such a humongous budget and I could even understand it if hardcore sci-fi fans still love the movie despite it turning out the way it did. The problem here wasn’t the concept but rather several other things that completely crushed the film.
It’s part sci-fi, part western, part pirate movie, all wrapped up in an environmentalist message. I can get down with any and all of that separately. I could even get down with all of those genres in one film if it was blended together in certain ways. Here, it was clunky and lessened the quality of the movie.
More importantly, Waterworld fails because of some horrible writing. There are holes that you could drive a truck through and they show up all over the place. In one breath, Helen (Tripplehorn) is comparing Enola (the child) to a mirror. Five minutes later, she’s talking about a mirror that the Mariner (Costner) has as if she’d never seen one before. She even calls it “reflecting glass”. Earlier in the film, Enola is ruthlessly tossed in the water by the Mariner, and that’s the point in the film when we find out that she can’t swim. Really?!?! In a universe where there isn’t a spot of dry land, an 8 year old kid can’t swim? Admittedly, they later cover their tracks when Enola points out how she’s considered “a freak” because she can’t swim but it’s pretty ridiculous to begin with.
And then there’s the whole universe, which is as primitive as it can be. Societies are akin to cavemen on water, using crude implements and the like. Yet, the major menace to the whole thing is The Deacon (Dennis Hopper) and his murderous gang of “Smokers”. They have cars, they have planes, they have jet skis for crying out loud. Where in the bloody hell did they amass the technology for that stuff? Where did they get the “go juice”- The Deacon’s word for gas- to make those machines work? I understand that there’s a certain suspension of disbelief required but it seemed to be asking too much.
The Mariner’s character arc is clunky and fast. It’s not even much of a character arc, as he was mostly quiet and heroic early in the film. It’s only through forced situations that he appears heartless- turning down having sex with a child not because it’s wrong but because they don’t have anything to trade; momentarily considering selling Enola into prostitution; constant threats that he’ll murder both Enola and Helen, even throwing Enola off the boat at one point to drown. Then magically, he becomes heroic again, as if a light switch had been flipped. It’s not like there’s any significant event to make it happen, nor is it done gradually. It’s just bad writing.
It finally devolves into a pile of chum in the last half hour, with at least a handful of instances in which I laughed. For instance, 90’s fun-time activity bungee jumping saved the day at one point. My favorite bit of schadenfreude came when The Deacon is seen reverently speaking/praying to a photo of Captain Joseph Hazelwood, who he refers to as “Saint Joe”. Hazelwood was the Captain of the Exxon Valdez. It was one of the hokiest, most ham-fisted moments I’ve ever seen on film. They compound the error by adding other references from The Deacon to Hazelwood.
I really can’t recommend this to anyone, not even in a “so bad it’s good” kind of way. It pains me to say that, too. Despite the clunkers on his resumé, I have a soft spot for Costner. This film was the precise moment I started having doubts, in 1996. I really wish I could recommend “the movie where Kevin Costner drinks his own piss and bungee jumps to save an 8 year old with a tramp stamp from Dennis Hopper, who worships Joseph Hazelwood”. That’s the most fun description of it that you’ll ever see and it makes it sound 100 times better than the reality.