WATERWORLD: Timing is everything
I was 11 years old when WaterWorld hit the big screen in 1995. Looking back on the 3,500 films released that year, I was actually surprised at how proactive my family had been at banking so many of the salient titles, though curiously WaterWorld was not among them. Perhaps I was too busy watching Stargate and the Star Wars Trilogy until the VHS tapes were nearly stripped bare. I recalled only vague visual fragments of the bombastic Kevin Costner vehicle floating in a decontextualized haze, gleaned from trailers seen on our old tube television, but like many who never actually took the plunge I was indeed, even at that young age, aware of (if not steeped in) the skewed controversies that ultimately curtailed its box office potential, overshadowed its creative and practical successes, undercut its scope and radical methodology, and ignored the fact that is was actually profitable within the year of its release. All I really knew then is that it was expensive, and that fact alone was a reason to want it not to succeed… right? But those times have changed. My oh my, how they have changed. Shortly thereafter, Cameron’s 1997 global smash and cinematic cultural touchstone Titanic was the paradigm shift that made a swelling budget something to be bragged about rather than reviled. In fact WaterWorld’s $178 million dollar principal cost constitutes the current median “blockbuster” budget. Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, Another seafaring adventure film really f#cked up the curve with $368 million.
Things happen in waves though, and UK-based Arrow Video has decided to exculpate WaterWorld through a vibrant 3-disc Limited Edition bluray treatment, replete with multiple edits, new essays in a beautiful perfectbound book, newly commissioned artwork and a fold-out poster that celebrates the rough texture and brash tone of dystopic adventure in which WaterWorld is saturated, which makes for a beautiful object amid the dominance of ephemeral streaming services. Just as Vinyl is being a sustained rise in sales and coveting among even lay music listeners, well-crafted and creative blu rays editions are becoming all the more attractive for their tactility and attention to detail. The WaterWorld set is easily among the most impressive and satisfying designs I’ve seen. Surprisingly, as someone avoidant of epics, I leapt at the opportunity to see this mammoth for the first time, more at home now in the context of our specific and elevated ecological fervor, perched at the tangible tipping point of atmospheric degradation portended in Kevin Reynolds’ film. That does also place it under the intense glare of 2019 analytics, unforgiving of spectacle that thinly veils patriarchal inflections and lack of substantive diversity in the lead roles. Perhaps I desperately needed a counterweight for the brooding atmospheric cinema I’d been consuming of late, or perhaps I felt like Arrow was giving me permission to look headlong at this lambasted mainstream film with fresh un-ironic eyes, introduced in an atmosphere of respect rather than in a maelstrom of derision, where its budget was off the table and its ideas on. What is being celebrated, or at least reevaluated here is the sheer impressiveness and unlikeliness of the feat that is this film, the height of its aims, the wild abandon and creativity in its design executed almost entirely in practical effects, and judicious use of digital effects in a project that would be 90% green screened now. That alone makes it so appropriate for this edition to exist as a physical object. Whatever the case may be, I was stoked and there was no denying it.
The year is unknown, but the polar ice caps have melted completely and sea levels have submerged all lands… though some that survive in this floating world believe that lush oasis still exists, a place called Dryland. Others still believe that a young girl bears the map to such a place upon her body. Costner plays the unnamed Icthiosapien “Mariner”, a solo seafaring drifter with gills behind his ears and webbed feet who trades in found objects and seems to know where to find the most precious commodity of all in this highly scattered humanity, dirt. He sails around on a wet dream of a steampunk trimaran (which Costner traverses and operates with fantastic ease) navigating between open sea and the scant communities of tribalized humans and other drifters in a world where there is little else to do.
Things get complicated when a rather eccentric group of “atollers” living in a stadium sized fortress/trading post decide to imprison and execute the Mariner on the grounds of his posing a threat to their safety and self-sustaining society. His escape is indebted to spitfire Helen (Jeannie Tripplehorn) and her adopted daughter Enola (Tina Majorino) who supposedly bears the indecipherable markings that indicate the way to Dryland. Though responsible for saving his life, the mariner is ill adept at generosity and borders on the sociopathic in his tantrums and disregard for their safety and survival.…at first. What we glean is the profound disconnection that the mariner experiences from other people, which would seem endemic to his solitary existence, and his having known no other Icthiosapien. We glean that he knows much more than the humans do, but his outlook is nihilistic and unhopeful. Like most, he abides by the moment, the direction of the wind, survival. Smokers, led by the irreverent and revered Deacon (Dennis Hopper essentially playing himself) constitute the enemy in this word. The big bads whose MO, is to rape, pillage, consume and destroy, keeping in line with the “ancients” who precipitated the destruction of the planet. Im not the first to call this out, but the reflexivity of a fossil fuel guzzling, conflict stirring, amoral, orange tinted totalitarian being in power in both reality and in this film makes it so perfect to see WaterWorld through the lens of now. This triangular antagonism between the Mariner, his inherited crew and the Smokers carries the final acts of the film, wherein Enola becomes the bounty of two sides.
As a dystopian adventure film, WaterWorld gets a lot of things right. The tribalism, the cutthroat rule of no-law, the anachronistic cobbled nature of all construction, the warring notions of controlled population growths within communities and hedonistic expansion, the primacy of trading/bartering, the monetization of dirt, all of these ideas are realized in a potent way. The critic in me had many questions though. Why is Enola’s tattoo in Chinese? Who knows. Its a little problematic, then again even written English is exoticized in this world because paper doesn’t exist anymore. Where do the smokers get all those cigarettes…. and spam? How long has the world been underwater and why does it at times seem to be very recent despite the culpable generation being called “the ancients”, calling into further question just how old that spam really is. If you’ve ever played whisper down the lane, then you know how quickly information dissolves, how steep the cliff can be. Languages can erase within a generation, such that even my father, a first generation Italian American knows no Italian. I wonder how well our world would do at retaining its wealth of knowledge, languages, intellect, rationality, philosophy in the face of such cataclysmic and dividing circumstances. I wonder what communities would look like, what technologies would survive and how identities would be shaped. WaterWorld does a fantastic job of positing answers to these questions in the undertow of a harrowing journey.
WaterWorld is not a masterpiece, and it never had to be. I don’t think Arrow Video is saying it is either. Arrow doesn’t really play that game. They just make fringe and extreme cinema available in ways that bestow a sense of excitement and respect which this edition does in spades. Though WaterWorld is a mainstream production (it actually began as an independent one), it is fringe and extreme in its realization and therefore at home in Arrow’s arsenal. To be clear, WaterWorld is awkward at parts, downright silly even. Its bleaker moods and ideas, ones that carry weight and should be the focus, are sometimes undermined by an Erol Flynn swashbuckling score (something the Director had no control over), its female lead (though intelligent, determined and contrary to the men in the room) is progressively underwritten as the film advances (the most unfortunate sin committed because of her aforementioned qualities), and many other problematic things besides. The female centered Fury Road corrected a lot of these issues without skimping on exuberant genre excesses (if not absurdities) or its messages, which perhaps makes it a more evolved sibling of WaterWorld…. and now all I can think of these ecologically minded epics, one ocean one desert, as a massively enjoyable drive-in double feature. Tandem with these critiques, for its realization of a highly textured and unapologetically steampunk world, its often thrilling and memorable sequences, for Costner’s underrated display of disaffection, interpersonal resistances and sea-savvyness, its absolute collision of genres, the monumental feat of executing aquatic stunt sequences that are still singular in cinema (many of which had to succeed on a single take), one cant help but feel that the off-kilter tonal effect bears some reflection of the anachronisms and mashups that are inherent to the world visualized in the film, put together piecemeal from flotsam and jetsam of bygone generations, disembodied of meaning. I wonder what sort of film we might have gotten were that bold experimental premise taken even further into, say, the use of varied film stocks, a sample-heavy score and radical editing, perhaps even an infusion of more substantive diversity and sustained feminism. We’ll never know, but I enjoy this new opportunity to imagine. The film we DO have is perhaps finally having its moment to shine. The film we DO have is often thrilling, exuberant, daring, even affecting and humorous and I am so glad that I finally took the plunge into this one, with no other intention than to experience a world fully realized.
THREE-DISC LIMITED EDITION CONTENTS -
Three cuts of the film newly restored from original film elements by Arrow Films - Original 5.1 DTSHD Master Audio and 2.0 stereo audio options - Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
Six collector’s postcards - Double-sided fold-out poster -Limited edition 60-page perfect bound book featuring new writing on the film by David J. Moore and Daniel Griffith, and archival articles
Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Paul Shipper
DISC ONE – THE THEATRICAL CUT - High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentation of the original theatrical cut - Maelstrom: The Odyssey of Waterworld, an all-new, feature-length making-of documentary including extensive cast and crew interviews and behind the scenes footage - Dances With Waves, an original archival featurette capturing the film’s production - Global Warnings, film critic Glenn Kenny explores the subgenre of ecologically themed end-of-the-world films - Production and promotional stills gallery - Visual effects stills gallery - Original trailers and TV spots
DISC TWO – THE TV CUT [LIMITED EDITION EXCLUSIVE] - High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentation of the extended US TV cut, which runs over 40 minutes longer than the theatrical cut
DISC THREE – THE “ULYSSES” CUT [LIMITED EDITION EXCLUSIVE] - High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentation of the extended European “Ulysses” cut, which include previously censored shots and dialogue