Was Kevin Costner's Waterworld an ahead-of-its-time eco-parable?

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Feb. 3 2009 12:04 PM

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What if the legendary flop were an eco-parable whose message was ahead of its time?

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But if Waterworld opened viewers' eyes to the catastrophic possibilities of climate change, would that make the $200 million seem like money better spent? (Consider that a former World Bank chief economist has advocated spending $600 billion per year to mitigate climate change.) Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert has called global warming "a threat that our brains are uniquely unsuited to do a damn thing about." It has no poster child, it is slow-moving, and its worst effects won't be felt until the future. Attempts have been made to give global warming a face—the polar bear, New Orleans—and eco-thrillers like The Day After Tomorrow have imagined what sudden climate change might look like. But the task of making people care about the future is tougher. And few things can make the future more vivid than a good science fiction movie.

Is Waterworld such a film? I might as well come out and say it: I likedWaterworld in 1995, and I like it now. It's true, as critics noted, that Costner's dreary performance does little to make the first man-fish sympathetic. But the film has some strong supporting performances, several entertaining if superfluous action sequences, and no more plot holes than other films of its kind. One scene, in particular, has stayed with me. Helen believes the Mariner must have seen Dryland, as it's the only explanation for how he came by all that dirt. "You really want to see it?" he asks her. "I'll take you to Dryland." Ushering her into a diving chamber, they dive fathoms and fathoms, finally reaching the barnacle-strewn wreckage of a former metropolis, where the Mariner raises a handful of dirt from the ocean floor. Hauntingly beautiful, the wordless scene is also a marvel of economic screenwriting, at once explaining the Mariner's source of wealth, closing the arc of Helen's obsession with Dryland, and tying the fantasy world of the film to the real world of the viewer.

But despite being a better movie than most people remember, Waterworld has its limitations as an eco-parable. It doesn't begin, as does The Day After Tomorrow, with a standoff between a climate scientist and a Cheney-esque symbol of corporate greed, nor does it issue an implicit ultimatum, as did last year's remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still (in which Keanu Reeves played an alien sent to Earth to assess whether humans could change their planet-abusing ways or whether they should simply be exterminated). In fact, the film never even definitively pins the blame for the flood on mankind. The narrator's declaration that "the polar ice caps have melted" is a little vague. The film's apocalypse was so thorough as to destroy the very knowledge of how it came about; in Waterworld, it is heresy to claim that there even was dry land before the flood.

Only the wisest Waterworldians have a hunch the mess they've inherited is anthropogenic. An old, kindly inventor asks the Mariner early in the film: "The ancients, they did somethingterrible, didn't they? To cause all this water, hundreds, hundreds of years ago." The real villains of Waterworld are centuries dead—but who has time to hold a grudge when Dennis Hopper and his army of jet skis are splashing at the gates of your floating city?

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In the end, what stymies the environmentalist who would tease a message out of Waterworld is this: It isn't grim enough. When the protagonists aren't in the middle of a swashbuckling set piece, they're patiently coping and demonstrating hope. "We'll just start over again," says that old inventor good-naturedly after his city is sacked. The film ends happily with the discovery of Dryland (Mount Everest, it turns out), an abundant paradise with cascading fresh water and galloping wild horses. Less an alarmist film than an oddly reassuring one, Waterworld seems to tell us that as bad as the coming apocalypse may be, a scrappy band of (mostly white, English-speaking) men and women will persevere. It offers the message of all summer blockbusters: Things will work out in the end. All we'll need to get by is floating architecture, decent windmills, and a healthy dose of stick-to-it-iveness. Oh, yes, and gills.

David Zax is a writer living in Washington, D.C.

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