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

Deleted scenes, commentary, and more.
Feb. 3 2009 12:04 PM

Return to Waterworld

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

Illustration by Charlie Powell. Click image to expand.

To rerelease Waterworld today on DVD takes daring; to market it as a "2-Disc Extended Edition" surely takes recklessness. Was the original, 136-minute theatrical cut not sufficiently extended? Wasn't everything about the film's production miserably drawn out? Its then-record expenditure (about $200 million); its feuding between Kevin Costner and director Kevin Reynolds; its troubled, interminable, on-location-in-the-Pacific shoot? Even before the film hit theaters, the press had dubbed it "Kevin's Gate" and "Fishtar." It failed miserably in the domestic box office (though it eventually recouped its losses in the foreign market). A few years ago, the film served as the subject (together with The Postman) of a chapter in Fiasco: A History of Hollywood's Iconic Flops.

But has Waterworld's moment finally arrived? The movie opens with an image of the globe as we know it slowly being swallowed by blue while a narrator explains that in the future, "the polar ice caps have melted, covering the world with water." Something similar, if less dramatic, is happening right now on Earth. Global warming is causing seas to rise (though the polar ice caps have little to do with it). In its 2007 report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change projected a sea-level rise of between seven and 23 inches by 2100. While that might not seem like much, it could be enough to make a low-lying island untenable: Recently, the Maldives' new president announced his intention to buy land to relocate his entire nation if necessary. What if Waterworld were an eco-parable whose message was merely ahead of its time?

The survivors of the great flood that Waterworld imagines have banded together to form floating villages called "atolls"—dreary fortifications designed to keep out the marauding riffraff who terrorize the post-apocalyptic seascape. When a nameless, taciturn drifter (Kevin Costner) arrives bearing a jar full of rare and precious dirt, the guards of one atoll eagerly admit him. But when the denizens of the atoll catch a glimpse of the gills behind Costner's ears, he is sentenced to death. (Not very tolerant of mutation, these atoll dwellers.) Just as Costner's man-fish is about to be executed, however, the atoll is sacked by a band of pirates searching for a girl with a precious map tattooed on her back (Tina Majorino). Costner escapes and becomes the grudging protector of the girl and her surrogate mother Helen (Jeanne Tripplehorn). Many explosions ensue.

In the lulls between the blasts, there runs through Waterworld a strong environmental current, one that was mostly overlooked or overshadowed in contemporary reviews but that has been noticed since (by the Sierra Club, among others). The first thing we see our hero do in the film is recycle: The Mariner (as Costner's character is known) has a device that transforms his urine into potable water, which he shares with a small potted lime tree. Even when in a bind, the Mariner insists on piloting his three-hulled catamaran solely with a renewable resource, wind.

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The Mariner's enemies are the aptly named Smokers, pirates who chain-smoke ancient cigarettes and favor gas-guzzling biplanes and jet skis. Their leader, the militaristic Deacon (a manic Dennis Hopper), is staunchly anti-science, declaring that God made "both man and fish, and no combination thereof. He does not abide the notion of evolution!" The car that he wheels around his supertanker sports a "NUKE THE WHALES" bumper sticker, and he worships "Saint Joe" Hazelwood, pilot of the Exxon Valdez. An enemy of sustainable living—he heads something called the Church of Eternal Growth—he is obsessed with finding the mythical Dryland, which he plans to rape as soon as he gets his hands on it: "If there's a river we'll dam it, and if there's a tree we'll ram it," he sermonizes to his flock.

Of course, coming from this movie, such a critique of excess smack a bit of hypocrisy. Fiasco catalogs the production expenses: star's nightly accommodations, $1,800; star's yacht transport to nearby set, $800,000; construction of floating city, $5 million; recovery of sunken floating city, $400,000. (Priceless, though, was the rumor—which Costner disputed as "bullshit"—that the star had demanded that his hairline be digitally altered in postproduction.)