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

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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.)

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?

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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