Waterworld promotional image

Wet Mad Max: Waterworld at 25

Scuttled by bad press on its release, Waterworld is a lot better than you remember

A post-apocalyptic dystopia where survivors live off of the detritus of Earth’s former civilization while bands of petroleum-obsessed marauders terrorize the weak. A small outpost community is laid siege by a megalomaniacal villain, their only hope for salvation is a reluctant, taciturn loner particularly well-adapted to this harsh environment. After a series of explosive action scenes featuring inventive and dazzling practical stunts, the survivors escape on an airship towards an uncertain but hopeful future, while the hero sets off again into the unknown. Sound familiar? I’m of course referring to one of the late-20th century’s most influential blockbusters: 1995’s Waterworld, starring Kevin Costner and Dennis Hopper. 

It’s difficult to overstate the influence George Miller’s The Road Warrior has had on the film and pop culture landscape, particularly throughout the 80s and early 90s. After the film’s initial release, video stores were bursting at the seams with low-budget exploitation schlock (mostly from Italy) featuring leather-clad dieselpunk desperados and their junkyard armadas. These copycats demonstrated the true beauty of Miller’s formula: they were dirt-cheap to make. Cobble together a handful of rusting, derelict automobiles; dress your cast in whatever ripped and decaying punk rock fashions you can find in the alley behind the local thrift store; and cart it all out to the nearest desert where you can blow shit up with impunity. Any film school dropout or midnight movie promoter could crank out a hackneyed Mad Max imitation over a weekend for a few thousand bucks. It was a formula that worked. But in the mid-90s, amid what was at the time considered an orgy of Hollywood studio spending, Universal launched production on a Mad Max ripoff that would shatter that formula as well as the record for the most-expensive movie ever produced at the time. And all they had to do was put it on water.

Anyone who’s ever made a movie on open water will tell you that it is unquestionably the most laborious, time-consuming, and expensive undertaking a filmmaker can ever shackle themselves to. The capriciousness of wind and weather in addition to the inherently destructive properties of seawater have a knack for pushing film schedules and budgets far beyond their original scope. Nevertheless, with then-A-lister Kevin Costner on board and no doubt buoyed by their previous success with Jaws, Universal greenlit Peter Rader’s script, brought on regular Costner collaborator Kevin Reynolds to direct along with Mad Max DP Dean Semler, and production was launched off the coast of the Big Island of Hawaii. Problems began almost immediately. The location chosen for the floating production was susceptible to gale-force winds, at one point sending an entire set to the briny depths. Then-child star Tina Majorino suffered repeated jellyfish stings, and tsunami evacuations were common. Armies of costumed extras sat unused for days waiting for the weather and the camera setup to be ready for filming. Clashes between Costner and Reynolds led to the director’s departure following principal photography, leaving the film’s star to take on post-production duties. The original production schedule swelled from 120 days to 166 days, and after all was said and done a budget of $100 million ballooned to $175 million, breaking the record for most-expensive film production ever (it would be surpassed by Titanic two years later).

The fiasco did not escape the notice of the Hollywood press, who gleefully started reporting on the troubled production as much as nine months ahead of the film’s release. Insufferable nicknames like “Kevin’s Gate” and “Fishtar” were attached to the project, and by the time the film premiered on July 28, 1995 it was irrevocably shackled to the notoriety of its own beleaguered production. “There’s been so much publicity about this movie’s budget that a review of the story seems beside the point,” wrote Roger Ebert, “I should just print the spreadsheets.”

Nearly every review at the time began with an accounting of the ponderous budget, setting impossible expectations about where all that money was supposed to have been going. Critics in the 90s were notoriously uptight about action movies in general, and combined with a growing disgust of what they perceived as a gluttonous shoveling of money into summer blockbusters as well as a general fatigue of the Mad Max aesthetic already beaten into the ground by imitators over the last decade, Waterworld was doomed to be a critical flop. However, even the most acerbic critics had a hard time faulting the film on its merits alone, and while most agreed that the end result was most certainly not worth the exorbitant cost, they begrudgingly praised the production design, action sequences, and Dennis Hopper’s outré performance. As much as it would have delighted its detractors, Waterworld is no Dr. Dolittle or Justice League. Revisiting the film in our own little dystopia of 2020 reveals a fun, campy action romp that even occasionally manages to exceed its Mad Max template.

When extricated from the notoriety of its budget, Waterworld gets a whole lot right. The costumes by John Bloomfield — be it a coat woven from plastic 6-pack holders or epaulettes fashioned out of spark plugs —  are cleverly constructed from the flotsam of our submerged civilization. James Newton Howard’s score is simply excellent, mixing classic orchestrals with more unorthodox pan flutes and didgeridoos. It’s no Doof Warrior, but it is nonetheless a thrilling reminder of the days when blockbuster film scores had easily recognizable title themes and leitmotifs. Even for a copycat film Rader’s script, as revised by David Twohey, demonstrates a deeper commitment to worldbuilding than lesser knockoffs. 

Waterworld re-imagines the traditional nuclear apocalypse setting commonly utilized in the 70s and 80s with the more contemporary, post-Cold War threat of climate change. Cleverly incorporating the Universal logo preceding the film as an exposition device, iconic “In a world…” voice actor Hal Douglas explains that the melting of the polar ice caps has totally submerged Earth’s land masses in water (like all good dystopian fantasy, the accuracy of this premise is questionable). In Waterworld, the apocalyptic setting directly informs the story’s mythology rather than merely serving as a backdrop. Even the infamous pee-drinking scene, deeply bizarre though it may be, wordlessly underscores the value of fresh water in this world of undrinkable saline. The setting even provides the villains of Waterworld — the soot-coated, nicotine-addicted Smokers — with a richer backstory than your typical bloodthirsty biker gang.

The deacon with Joe Hazelwood portrait, Nuke the Whales bumper sticker
Nuke the whales for old Saint Joe

Both the heroes and villains in the Mad Max films have adapted to their post-apocalyptic environment in similar ways. They use the same kinds of tools and machinery and are both dependent on petroleum to survive. But in Waterworld, the “good guys” of the Atoll community use clean wind power as they attempt to build a new society adapted to their current reality of environmental collapse. The Smokers, on the other hand, exist as something akin to a death cult, worshiping drunken Exxon Valdez captain Joe Hazelwood as a sort of patron saint of criminal irresponsibility, blithely chain smoking while handling flammable liquids. The Smokers seek dry land not for redemption, but so they can bulldoze it in an act of pure, gleeful nihilism — unswerving commitment to finishing what their gas-guzzling forebears started. And they are led with scenery-chewing zeal by Dennis Hopper’s The Deacon in unquestionably the film’s best performance. It’s a concept that Miller would adopt 20 years later with the fatalistic War Boys of Fury Road. However the Smokers elicit none of the queer subtext and punk camp of the Mad Max universe, which is likely why they’ve lacked the same kind of pop-cultural staying power. What has endured, however, is the tactility and simplicity of Waterworld’s practical action scenes, which honor the George Miller ethos and elevate the film above a typical throwaway blockbuster.

In an era where action films construct sequences whole cloth out of pixels, no film, anywhere, ever, will come close to replicating the virtuoso practical action spectacle of Fury Road. However, audiences nostalgic for the heady days of CGI-free pageantry will find much to admire in Waterworld. Like Fury Road, each of the film’s featured action compositions are imaginative, well-constructed, and tightly paced. Unlike in modern blockbusters, the rhythm of the action is not lost in a blur of punch-punch-blam CGI soup. Rather, each one of Waterworld’s explosive arrangements has its own distinct and memorable centerpiece. Whether it’s the machine gun barge slowly spinning out of control (“call him Charles!”), the airplane (flown by pre-fame Jack Black) destructively tethered to the Mariner’s trimaran, or the climactic hero shot of the Mariner outrunning a massive explosion on a zip line. There’s a reason this film is best remembered for its stage show at Universal Studios. The action is simple, inventive, smartly edited, and rhythmically composed.

It’s a phrase that gets thrown around a lot, but you couldn’t make a film like Waterworld today. “It really was the last of its kind,” co-star Jeanne Tripplehorn recalled. While the budgets for blockbusters today far exceed that of Waterworld, they’re combined with a lower level of risk more conducive to the studio’s bottom line. Pre-existing franchise properties — like Mad Max — are considered a safer bet compared to the relatively original concept of Waterworld. Money that would otherwise be spent on locations and sets are pumped into audience-wooing stars and armies of visual effects artists. In many ways history seems to be repeating itself. Skyrocketing budgets paired with increasing critical distaste for excessive spending on a seemingly unending parade of blockbusters. I doubt the critics of the 90s would have thought there’d come a time when we’d be nostalgic for an era limited by the constraints of physics and the fragile human frame. Is Waterworld one of the great hidden gems of the 90s? Not really. Was it wildly underrated by critics on its release? Absolutely. 25 years after its premiere it has shed the anchor of its fiscal reputation through the strength of its filmcraft and memorable action. Waterworld may not have made as big of a splash as the George Miller films it seeks to imitate, but nonetheless fans of campy action sci-fi should be eager to dive in.

Kristen Grote is a freelance film and culture critic. Follow her on Twitter and Letterboxd.