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Remember This Scene: 'Waterworld'

Jeremy Fuster |
October 28, 2014 | 1:16 p.m. PDT

Staff Reporter

 Universal Studios)
Universal Studios)
Every Tuesday, Jeremy Fuster analyzes a critical scene from a popular film. Join him every week as he delves into what exactly makes these critical scenes so memorable and successful.

Growing up, I knew "Waterworld" as two things: a kickass stunt show at Universal Studios, and a film with a legacy as one of the most famous box office bombs in movie history.  It was the butt of countless jokes in the 90s, helped build Kevin Costner’s bad reputation, and became the precursor for the glut of high-budget, low-return blockbusters we get on an annual basis today.

But recently, I finally got to see this infamous film during a binge viewing of Costner’s career, and I was left with one question: Why does this film get such a bad rap? Not only is "Waterworld" not a bad film, it’s actually a pretty fun sci-fi flick with loads of creativity and compelling action scenes. And given all the sequels, comic book movies, and repetitive takes on the post-apocalyptic genre we get today, it’s a surprising breath of fresh air.

"Waterworld" takes place centuries in the future. The polar ice caps have completely melted, the remnants of humanity survive in decrepit, floating sheet metal fortresses called atolls, and the waters are ruled by bands of slavers and pirates. Kevin Costner plays the Mariner, a mutant with webbed feet and fishy gills behind his ears who cares little for the rest of humanity or Darwin’s rules of evolution. During his travels, he comes across a mother and daughter named Helen (Jeanne Tripplehorn) and Enola (Tina Majorino). Enola has a strange tattoo on her back that is actually a map to the last remaining bit of dry land on the planet. This makes the girl a target for the Smokers, the top pirates of the sea who travel on a decrepit Exxon Valdez – yes, THAT Exxon Valdez – and are lead by a maniacal tyrant called the Deacon, played with loads of delicious cheese by villain actor extrodinaire Dennis Hopper.

READ MORE: Remember This Scene: 'Glengarry Glen Ross'

Let’s get the bad stuff out of the way, starting with the most obvious: Costner. He looks really cool in the action scenes, but he's the same boring schmuck in every scene and it’s unfair to accuse him of not having talent, but he definitely needs good direction to guide him and he didn’t get it here. In fact, director Kevin Reynolds walked off the film near the end of production, leading to Costner taking over. Later, Reynolds told Entertainment Weekly that Costner “should only appear in pictures he directs himself. That way he can always be working with his favorite actor and his favorite director.'' Ouch.

In addition, the plot is constantly driven by the characters doing really dopey things. For example, in one scene the Mariner reveals to Helen the long-forgotten truth of Earth’s past civilization, taking her down to show the underwater ruins of Denver. This is just after a big fight with the Smokers, which means that the Smokers know exactly where the dry land map are located. Shouldn’t the Mariner be sailing as far away as possible? But nope, he parks the boat, shows Helen the ruins while leaving Enola topside, and when they surface, the Deacon is there to take Enola away and destroy the Mariner’s boat. For being such an unforgiving place, "Waterworld" sure has a lot of idiots surviving on it.

READ MORE: Remember This Scene: 'Tremors'

But despite Costner being Costner and the script’s several lapses in logic, "Waterworld" still holds up because of it’s biggest strength: Immersion. Immersion is one of the most important qualities a fantasy or a sci-fi movie can have, because much of the enjoyment of such a film can come from placing the audience in a detailed setting that hints at an even bigger world that isn’t being shown on screen. "Waterworld" creates such an immersive environment through brilliant set design. Every single locale, from the atolls to the Mariner’s boat to the Smoker-controlled Exxon Valdez, looks absolutely breathtaking. The nautical steampunk costumes are fun to look at, whether it’s the Deacon’s red and black jacket or the metal hats worn by the atollers. In the nearly two decades since this film came out, there have been loads of variations on the zombie invasion and nuclear fallout brands of post-apocalyptic steampunk, but there’s never been anything that looks like "Waterworld."

This setting especially comes alive during the film’s four action scenes. When danger strikes, the Mariner gets to work trying to fight off the threat and find a way to escape. These scenes are choreographed so beautifully, as Costner runs and jumps and swims and swings all over the place. All around him, people are fighting with jet skis, machine guns and giant harpoons.  The camera gazes on every contraption and watercraft as the characters use them. This focus makes the world seem more detailed and real. Combine it with the spectacular stunts and James Newton Howard’s soaring score, and it’s no wonder that Universal Studios decide to make a live stunt show out of this movie. It’s pure swashbuckling fun set in a world that’s so thoroughly crafted you can almost smell the seawater. Considering all the complaints thrown around nowadays about Hollywood studios rarely trying anything new and relying on tried and tested franchises and concepts, there should be more appreciation for the unique setting that "Waterworld" created.

Ultimately, I wonder if "Waterworld" was just a victim of outside factors. The movie’s marketing gave the impression that it was going to be a much more serious affair, hence the endless comparisons made between it and "Mad Max." Then there was the aforementioned drama between Costner and Reynolds as well as the chaotic production setbacks that caused the infamous budget inflation. All these things created a toxic buzz around the film when it was released, but none of it has anything to do with what the film actually was. "Waterworld" ended up being a rollicking adventure with wide-eyed ambition and a lovingly built atmosphere as good as any of its top peers from the 90s. After twenty years of bad rep, it's time to give this bomb some slack.

Find other "Remember This Scene?" posts here. Check back on Friday for a special Halloween edition.

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