Waterworld (1995)

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This month of July has already been chock-full of disasters both natural and man-made. From the oil tanker explosions in the remote town of Lac-Mégantic, Quebec to the huge flooding of the Greater Toronto metropolitan areas; the images seen on TV could make you wonder if we are living in a disaster film itself.

The truth is an obvious no; however, life is one big beautiful disaster after another (depending on your perspective). Life is messy, cruel, unforgiving, and at times depressing. Mother Nature could care less if you are in the way of one of her floods, tornadoes, hurricanes, or violent lightning tantrums.

Despite the fact we live under this unpredictable goddess of creation and destruction, it is up to us as humans to soldier-on, re-build  and of course become stronger than we were before the events took place. That’s what we do, and that’s what makes us the greatest species to ever walk, eat, sleep and crap on this planet.

We as humans also have the power to create and destroy, just like nature. That is why the extraordinary events of this month have made me want to re-watch one of the ultimate doom films, Waterworld. The entire plot line deals with the issue of creation and destruction, along with mans role in the future he creates for himself.

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WATERWORLD

Director: Kevin Reynolds                                                                                                                              Stars: Kevin Costner, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Tina Majorino                                                                            Genre: Action, Adventure, Sci-Fi, Thriller

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Overview/Breakdown (mild spoilers if you have not seen it):

In the future (year 2500), the polar ice caps have melted, and the sea level has risen hundreds of meters, covering every continent and turning Earth into a water planet. Human population has been scattered across the ocean in individual, isolated communities consisting of artificial islands and mostly decrepit sea vessels. It was so long since the events that the humans eventually forgot that there were continents in the first place. Although many believe that there is a mythical place on Earth called “Dryland”.

A drifter (Costner), known only as “the Mariner”, sails the open seas in his pimped out trimaran. He enters an artificial atoll city in the shallower part of the ocean looking to trade dirt, which is a precious commodity. He is instantly asked how he found it, but refuses to answer. It is later revealed that he is not a human, but a mutant with webbed feet and gills, an evolutionary step in some of the humans to accommodate the changes in climate. The fearful atoller’s vote to “recycle” him by drowning him in a yellow sludge brine pool. At that moment, local sea pirates, known as “Smokers”, raid the atoll, having been tipped off by a Smoker spy posing as a trader, known as “the Nord”.

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The Smokers are searching for an orphan girl named Enola (Tina Majorino), who has what appears to be a map and directions to Dryland tattooed on her back. The girl and her guardian, Helen (Jeanne Tripplehorn), the atoll’s shopkeeper, plan to escape with Gregor (Michael Jeter), the atoll’s expert inventor, in the hopes of finding Dryland. Unfortunately, Gregor’s escape method, a hydrogen-filled balloon made of old rags, launches too early with him on it, leaving Helen and Enola stranded.

They instead escape with the Mariner, who agrees to take them with him because they saved his life, though he is ill at ease with their company, as he prefers solitude, and finds them to be a nuisance. Chasing them is “the Deacon”, who is the captain of a derelict oil tanker, the Exxon Valdez (obvious dig at the 1989 Valdez eco-disaster), and the leader of the Smokers, who are armed with old military weapons and jet skis. He wants the map to Dryland to arrive and build a first city in which he will rule and has a number of skirmishes with the Mariner while trying to get Enola.

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Given the high-profile supposed failure of Waterworld, Costner’s previous post-apocalyptic venture to The Postman , it might seem a bit shocking that Costner was given the red carpet and full escort to embark on this project. However, a more detailed evaluation makes sense of the situation.

Firstly, despite its unsavory reputation, Waterworld wasn’t actually a financial disaster. Although it didn’t immediately make back its massive $175m budget domestically, it did turn a healthy profit when worldwide ticket and home video sales were taken in to account.

Secondly, Costner was still on a career high at that point. His resumé had a laundry list of solid performances in films such as The Untouchables, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and Oliver Stone’s JFK. In addition, he was still mainly known as Kevin ‘Dances with Wolves’ Costner, the Oscar-winning director. Despite the relative displeasure of Waterworld, a Costner-helmed action movie must have seemed like a good bet.

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While Costner never hit Robin Hood heights again, Waterworld is more than $100m in profit if you want to view the film on a financial success level.  On the other hand, it’s difficult to see a reason for the critical ire other than it was Costner’s turn for a backlash.

There was ammunition for said backlash — the film’s spiraling budget, and a falling out with director Kevin Reynolds. Far superior to most of today’s blockbusters, the 1995 film is packed with show-stopping action and Costner’s Mariner is a compelling antihero (Han Solo with more menace + Costner cockiness).

I suppose that everyone enjoys behind-the-scenes stories of disagreements between lead actors and directors, and tales of woe concerning films that run massively and catastrophically over-budget (clearly the case for Waterworld).  It’s impossible to take your eyes off a train wreck, in other words.

And yet the problem with this focus on the behind the scenes drama emerges when the same critics draw an explicit connection between behind-the-scenes strife and the artistic merits of a finished work-of-art.

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Using the former factors (behind-the-scenes strife), to judge the latter (artistic merit), is problematic, because the relationship clearly isn’t one-to-one.  A difficult shoot doesn’t necessarily result in a bad film.  Going over budget doesn’t necessarily mean artistic disaster, either.  And the opposite is also true: a smooth shoot doesn’t indicate that a film is going to turn out terrific.

Certainly, this unfortunate critical paradigm was exposed with both King Kong (1976) and John Carter (2012), both of which were received harshly by the critical community largely on the basis of behind-the-scenes, “inside-baseball” factors rather than a judicious consideration of artistic factors.

This fallacy is also true of Waterworld, a film that, upon release (as you probably guessed by now), was clearly marked in the press as a troubled production, and furthermore, the most expensive film of all-time.

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Beyond the obvious inspiration the film draws from the Mad Max mythos, Waterworld succeeds mostly because of the “reality” of the world it assiduously constructs. The film is one of the last sci-fi epics to emerge from the pre-digital age of Hollywood blockbusters and, accordingly (and for all its apparent flaws) boasts this heightened sense of texture. Everything (or most everything) our eyes witness had to be arduously constructed and set afloat, and that herculean effort pays off in a visual and imaginative sense.

Now, thanks to CG and advancement in the cinematic arsenal of film makers, film sets of Waterworld’s epic proportions don’t have to be constructed to portray a larger than life Sci-Fi world.

With that said. Waterworld is truly one epic underdog. It is the reminisce of a time when action and Sci-fi films had a distinct raw and edgy feel (where you could almost taste and smell the gasoline or chard body-parts) unlike today’s sleek and smooth CG festivals that take place on your plasma TV or at your local cinema(not knocking modern tech-just an observation).

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