As with most science fiction, Waterworld requires a certain amount of ignorance of, or indifference to, science to enjoy the fiction. The film is an action-adventure set in the distant post-Apocalyptic future--a time when the polar ice caps have been melted by some cataclysm. Surviving humanity lives on skiffs and boats or on huge floating cities. Commerce is a matter of barter, with dirt being the most precious commodity. The scourge of these endless seas are pirates called smokers--it's not made clear whether they're so called because they drive motorized vehicles like jet skis and airplanes or because of their huge stockpile of cigarettes.
Against this backdrop, Waterworld plays out the basic plot of the greatest of all post-Apocalyptic actioners, George Miller's The Road Warrior. Kevin Costner is the Mad-Maxish hero, known simply as the Mariner--a loner who roams the seas on a fascinating boat that might have been designed by Rube Goldberg.
The Mariner reluctantly takes on two passengers, a lovely young woman (Jeanne Tripplehorn) and a spunky little girl (Tina Majorino). The younger passenger has a map on her back which shows the way to the place, long considered mythical, called Dry Land. The map makes the Mariner the target of the Smokers--who are led by an amiable psycho called the Deacon (Dennis Hopper).
Even after you've accepted the initial absurdity--that the earth would still be inhabitable for humans after a change of climate sufficient to melt the poles--you're left with plenty of glaring gaffes. To Entertainment Weekly columnist Chris Nashawaty's hilarious list, which includes such puzzlements as, "Who's got the sunscreen?" and "If there's no land, and dirt is such a scarce commodity, why's everyone so filthy?" I would add the following: How likely is it that these people would use water to flush their bodily waste? This distasteful question is raised when main heavy Hopper, seeing Costner approaching for the final showdown, wails, "He's the turd that won't flush!" I wouldn't necessarily argue with the sentiment, applied to Costner, but the idea of indoor plumbing in a completely marine society seems a bit redundant.
So, Waterworld is ludicrous. So, it's dramatically routine. And so derivative of The Road Warrior that it even replaces the batty gyrocopter guy with a batty hot-air balloon guy (Michael Jeter). Suppose you're willing to set all this aside. I was, for about three-fourths of the movie, because it's so excellently made.
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Visually, the film is unique--the cinematographer, Dean Semler, had next to nothing to work with except sea, sky, horizon and actors' faces, and yet the film is never dull to look at, and director Kevin Reynolds stages a number of enjoyably outlandish, over-the-top action scenes.
But, as the film moves into its final act, it becomes slowly less and less tolerable, because the attempt to turn the Mariner--that is to say, to turn Costner--into a mythic hero shifts into high gear. There are actors who can make sullen, laconic loner-heroes attractive, but Costner isn't one of them. He comes across here, as usual, like an overgrown, grumpy frat-boy who always suspected that he was singularly cool, and who somehow came by the wherewithal to prove it onscreen. He's pushed himself as Henry Fonda in The War and JFK, as Errol Flynn in Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves, as James Dean in A Perfect World. With Waterworld, as with Wyatt Earp, he thinks he's Gary Cooper or Alan Ladd.
Post-Apocalyptic sci-fi has largely taken over the turf of the western, in spite of the latter genre's mild comeback. So there's nothing necessarily unpromising about the concept of a mutant, water-breathing Shane. But Costner is highly unpromising as Shane. Put simply, if you think you should be seen as an American-mythic loner, you've already shown too much vanity to pull it off. As The New Yorker's Terrence Rafferty quipped, "He never dreamed that filming on water would be so tough, because he thought he could walk on it."
I've managed to get this far without mentioning the film's Brobdingnagian budget--reportedly the largest in movie history--because I've never been able to see the relevance of how much a film costs to the amount of pleasure it gives the casual viewer. Even though I've come to dislike Costner onscreen, by the time Waterworld opened I was rooting for it, because I was so sick of how it had been written off before even a frame of it had been shown. Still, about this swollen production this much should be said: A good, competent hack producer like, say, Roger Corman could probably have realized the same script for under a million dollars, and although it would have lacked the star power and Semler's superb photography, it might well have been more kinetically exciting. It would almost certainly have been better paced, less protracted and way less pretentious. With gargantuan-budgeted films, it's often asked whether the millions "are up there on the screen." It's worth remembering that it isn't always a compliment if the answer is "Yes.