Putting all that aside, “Waterworld” is a not-bad futuristic actioner with three or four astounding sequences, an unusual hero, a nifty villain and less mythic and romantic resonance than might be desired. Pic owes more than a passing debt to the “Mad Max” movies in its post-apocalyptic opposition of communal peaceniks and marauding warriors, as well as for its industrial-waste production design. What’s missing is the spiky, anarchic humor of George Miller’s great trilogy, as well as an emotional or sexual charge, which is there for the taking but studiously avoided.
Pic’s opening gambit is among its most clever: The premise of a world whose land masses have been entirely covered by water is established by showing the melting of the Arctic ice cap on the Universal logo’s globe. Opening scene of Costner’s voyaging Mariner pissing into a jar and transforming its contents into drinking water succinctly conveys the dilemma faced by the survivors of this environmental catastrophe (it never rains in the course of the picture).
Like a quintessential Western wanderer, without name, roots or family ties, the Mariner looks out only for himself. Sailing the endless seas in a sleek, high-speed trimaran rigged with harpoon guns and loads of other special gear, this classic loner has developed survival instincts to the point where tiny gills behind his ears allow him to breathe underwater and webbed feet enable him to swim like a dolphin. These minor accoutrements are visible only in a few quick shots.
In due course, the Mariner pulls into a hulking atoll, a floating scrap-metal island that is called home by a motley assortment of suspicious, slightly batty citizens who lock the Mariner up when he refuses to impregnate a young lady of their tribe. It turns out these folks have good reason to be nervous, however, since they represent easy prey for the savage Smokers, a breed of ill-mannered thugs who have long since traded in their choppers for sea-bikes and take orders from the maniacal Deacon, played with full-tilt relish by a bald-headed, eye-patched Dennis Hopper.
In an incredible 12-minute assault sequence, the Smokers overtake the atoll with a rape-and-pillage spirit that Attila the Hun would have applauded. But the Mariner manages to escape on his nonpareil craft, reluctantly taking along the woman who saved him, Helen (Jeanne Tripplehorn), and her feisty adopted daughter , Enola (Tina Majorino), on whose back is tattooed a sunlike symbol that may indicate the whereabouts of the place everyone dreams about, even if it may not actually exist: the mythical Dryland.
It’s little Enola who the Deacon really covets, and most of the remainder of the picture consists of the baddies trying to track her down and smoke her out. Once they do, they remove her to their rusty domain, the pockmarked shell of the old Exxon Valdez supertanker, which in turn requires a spectacular rescue by the Mariner.
Along the way are other visual highlights. In one, a small Smoker plane attacks the trimaran but is deftly harpooned by Helen, causing it to circle around the craft as on a maypole while the combatants fight it out. Later, in the film’s single most awe-inspiring scene, the Mariner contrives to take Helen on a guided tour of the ocean floor, which contains monumental echoes of the climax of “Planet of the Apes.”
The spectacular physicality of this unsettled, threatening, open-air world is amply expressed by Kevin Reynolds’ muscular direction, Dean Semler’s amazingly mobile camerawork, Kevin Costner’s game athleticism, the cascade of seemingly impossible stunts and the ever-present natural elements.
But the story has a sort of grim obsessiveness about it, a calculated determination to be edgy that instead comes off as needlessly heartless and cold. This strain is most amply expressed in the relationship between the Mariner and Helen, which starts out as enormously hostile and takes a very long time to thaw out. The Mariner initially refuses the woman’s sexual favors, and when they finally do get cozy, nothing at all is made of it.
Some sort of connection is indicated, to the extent that a basically useless coda, predicated on the possibility of this Shane of the seas settling down, has been tacked on in the false presumption of emotional resonance.
The humor that might have helped the film could have derived from the central male-female relationship. Given that Costner’s heroes are generally pretty sober and glum, the good times would need to have come from a spunky heroine. But Tripplehorn provides just the opposite, a terribly serious, overwrought, always worried woman quite unable to leaven Kevin. Majorino is OK as the urchin with an artistic streak, while Hopper has a field day as the floating fuhrer, even if he’s played variations on this role numerous times before.
Costner’s Mariner is deliberately designed to possess no past or normal human dimensions. He’s gruff, nasty and selfish, preferring to toss the girl into the drink rather than share his urine water with her. This throws the burden of his performance onto the physical side, and he handles that splendidly. The actor has never looked so pumped up, and one can easily believe that this guy feels more at home swimming with the fishes than communing with chatty humans.
The sets, costumes and many of the effects are stupendous, although there are a couple of slips: A shark attack, hinted at by the appearance of some threatening fins, never happens, and a sequence in which the Mariner is swallowed up by a giant sea creature, only to blast his way out from within, is over before you know what has happened.
Some evocative percussion and wind instrumentation bring welcome flavor to James Newton Howard’s full-bodied adventure score.