In the future of Waterworld, everyone looks both wet and dry — soaked by their constant exposure to the water that has covered the planet, their skin red and wrinkled by the sun reflecting off the ocean. The polar ice caps have melted, and dirt is a prized commodity, like petrol in the Mad Max trilogy. In fact, almost everything in Waterworld is like the Mad Max trilogy (the movie could be called Wet Max), except for its pace. The director, Kevin Reynolds, doesn’t give us the cartoon-kinetic jolts of George Miller; he gives us exhausting physical realism. The relentless forward journey, over water instead of scorching desert, progresses against harsh and unforgiving backdrops, like the cattle drives in Anthony Mann’s westerns. Yet, for all the motion, we get no real sense of progression: The damned vast expanse of ocean always looks the same as it did two scenes ago. Reynolds wants us to experience the endless sea as the characters do: both wide open and smothering — the way you felt as a kid, looking up at the stars in the night sky and feeling infinity come over you in a frightening rush. Some of the images have a suffocating grandeur. Water, water everywhere.
The anti-hero, Mariner (Kevin Costner), is the latest in a long line of callous loners that include not only Mad Max but Josey Wales, James Stewart’s hard-asses in the Mann westerns, and probably all the way back to Beowulf. The basic function of these personality-challenged slabs of beef is to be the steady rock at the center of the action — the rock that various weaker, more human, and generally more lively characters cling to. And gradually some of their humanity rubs off on the loner, while some of his self-reliance rubs off on them. The difference in Waterworld is that those subsidiary characters are in short supply. Everyone we see (mostly men) is grubby, stressing over survival. Only the villains seem to have any form of recreation, and even they’re a ragged, indistinct bunch. Mariner has been out on the water alone so long that he’s lost any pretense of compassion or patience. About all that sets him apart from everyone else on the screen is that we see more of him — that, and his webbed toes and gills.
More than once, the camera pulls back and back until Mariner’s huge boat is just a speck in the ocean. The people are specks, too. Kevin Reynolds actually can do people, as he showed in his amiable feature debut, Fandango (also starring Costner). In his haplessly misconceived Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Reynolds gave himself over to the mud and cold and physical discomfort of medieval times — apparently not caring that, for many of us, the magic of Robin Hood had been forever embodied by the athletic, boisterous Errol Flynn. That project wasn’t right for Reynolds; if he wanted to make a realistic movie about the Dark Ages, he should have done it some other way. Reynolds’ great talent (you heard me) lies in making us feel, actually feel, whatever atmosphere or climate he chooses to evoke. Waterworld is an anti-summer movie — it’s as tiring and headachy as a long day at the beach. Is it fun? Not really. Is that the point? Not really. The futuristic milieu is oppressively convincing; Reynolds’ obsession with the elements, at the risk of alienating an audience that wants only escapism, makes him perhaps the most radical big-movie director since Kubrick. All the effort pays off: Waterworld has my respect. I had no idea what the characters were thinking half the time, but I had an excellent idea what they were feeling, physically. This may be the only water-filled movie in history that makes you thirsty. You can almost smell the salt on Mariner’s sunburned skin.
Kevin Costner has taken some lumps for his one-note performance as Mariner, but I thought he was funny — more so, even, than Dennis Hopper, who turns up as the Deacon, the maniacal one-eyed leader of the villainous Smokers. Costner spends most of the movie acting like a grumpy bear with a migraine (which may not have been acting). Mariner takes two survivors onto his ship — a little girl, Enola (Tina Majorino), who has a map tattooed onto her back, and her companion-protector Helen (Jeanne Tripplehorn). He sees them both entirely as obstructions. “Hi,” Enola says cheerfully to Mariner. “Move,” he replies. Helen offers Mariner her body; he looks her over and grunts, “You got nothin’ I need.” (Later, he tells her he didn’t seize the moment because “I knew you didn’t really want me.” Okay, so there’s something that sets him apart from most guys on Waterworld, and on our world too.) Mariner eventually thaws a little, but in the meantime his very humorlessness is amusing. When Enola gives a friendly, innocent wave to the Smokers, Mariner slaps her upside the head: “What are you thinkin‘ about?” Costner’s relentlessly antagonistic performance at the center of this big movie is another risk that pays off.
Costner is doing something daring; Dennis Hopper isn’t. He’s funny, but he’s funny in exactly the same way he was in Speed, which is a polite way of saying he’s in a rut. His Deacon has no menace. As entertaining as Hopper can be, he’s never grasped the great secret of playing a villain, which is to act as if the movie is really about the villain — an ambitious guy who keeps getting thwarted by some tiresome hero. (Contemporaneous example: Tim Roth in the otherwise pathetic Rob Roy.) Audiences laugh fondly at Hopper now, and he’s stunted by that fondness. Like Jack Nicholson, Hopper has learned precisely which bits of business will go over big — these once-dangerous actors have turned into sitcom crazies. Their timing has become immaculate and disheartening; their wildness arrives right on schedule, like Kramer bursting through the door on Seinfeld. Hopper may have another ferocious Blue Velvet performance (or touching Hoosiers performance) in him, but the evidence against it gets more depressing every summer. He seems to have handed his career over to goofing around in movies for teenagers.
Reynolds may have thought that if the Deacon were as grim and resourceful as Mariner, Waterworld would have been unwatchable. (Would it have been unwatchable if Mariner had been as loud and high-spirited as the Deacon?) This director isn’t interested in the eternal good-evil throwdown. His heart is in the scenes of Mariner leapfrogging around his boat like an organic cog in the machinery. The conflict in Reynolds’ movies is between man and nature — or, most often, between Kevin Costner and nature: Costner in the desert looking for Dom, Costner brooding in the fog of Sherwood Forest, Costner on the water. Watching Costner live it up in Fandango before going to see Waterworld is a vivid lesson in the difference ten years make. Assuming that these men want to work together again, what’s left for them to conquer? The frozen tundra? Outer space? A lost city under the earth? Kevin Reynolds could become a major director, working his own private side of the street, but he needs better scripts. (The one here, credited to Peter Rader and David Twohy, is sometimes witty but also sketchy and derivative.) Waterworld isn’t anything great, but it’s miles ahead of the usual summer fluff. It’s the work of a talented director-star team who, at this point, probably want their next collaboration to be a quiet romantic comedy with Costner sitting in a nice restaurant talking to a beautiful woman for two hours.