Kevin Costner and his ego have had quite an adventure in Hollywood over the years. They seem to devote themselves to the roles, him and his ego, and - in the right movie - this has had laudable results. In the wrong movie, however, it has not, instead resulting in what feels like a performance from, well, a man and his ego. Hell, I like the guy, and not just for Dances with Wolves and JFK, but for his earlier, less pretentious work like Tony Scott's Revenge and the classic Untouchable, and also for his more recent, ego-less work, with Robert Duvall on Open Range. But I have absolutely no idea how he chooses between his movies, and how he signed up for The Postman or... Waterworld.
The Mariner is a loner in a post-apocalyptic world where the polar ice caps have melted and have left 99% of the planet's surface covered in water. He is not looking for trouble - he is barely staying alive with scant food around and a convoluted water recycling device - but when pirates come calling, he shows his true mettle. Arriving at an atoll trading outpost, he ends up being captured by the disparate group of survivors on this floating island. But when his captors are attacked by an evil pirate named The Deacon, he forms an uneasy alliance with a couple of them - in exchange for his freedom - and they all make a run for it on his boat. Chased by The Deacon, plagued by a lack of food and water and some rather strange ships that pass in the night, they eventually have to face what they are running from, stop The Deacon and destroy his pirate oil tanker. Perhaps they may even find a way to the seemingly mythical dry land.
What's that I hear you say? Mad Max 2: Road Warrior? You're asking why they didn't just call it Water Warrior? Well, I bet that's what the film pitch went like, as if something out of an Orange advert:
“Guys, we got a plan. We want to update Mad Max 2.”
“Cool, good plan, popular cult classic action film. So how you gonna' make it different?”
“Well, we're basically gonna' take the screenplay for Mad Max 2 and... set it on water. Instead of being post-apocalyptic, it'll be kinda' post-ice-captic.”
“That'll work. Have a hundred and fifty million dollars.”
Kevin Costner's Mariner is basically a more believable version of Mad Max (at least when it comes to a vehicle, he has a wind-powered trimaran - which has got to be more realistic that Max's V8 Interceptor: in a world where the oil's run out, he'd be more likely trundling around in a SmartCar.) Just like in The Road Warrior, this loner-with-skills happens across a ragtag group of people who are in search of a mythical place which he has given up hope in. Further he has to help and protect them from an evil bunch of pirates who are oppressing them. “Just add water. Oh, and give the hero some gills. That'd be cool.”
Ironically, if it was advertised as just Mad Max 2 on water - i.e. in a less pretentious, more honest kind of way - it may have had a little more success. But good 'ol Kev brought his ego with him on this one. First, he insisted that Kevin Reynolds - who previously Directed him successfully for the frivolous but fun Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves - be brought on to Direct this film. Then, he got his own personal villa (which ended up costing MILLIONS because of the duration of filming) whilst he left the rest of the cast and crew in barely habitable shacks. The set itself was 1000 tons of floating steal, cost millions upon millions, and was nearly destroyed by one of three hurricanes that plagued the production. Eventually, due to disagreements with Costner (and his ego), Reynolds quit and left Costner to do the last 2 weeks of filming. The whole production took 157 days.
The script itself was just as much of a mess. It underwent a whopping 36 different drafts, involving no less than 6 writers - going from the hands of the original author Peter Rader, into those of David 'The Chronicles of Riddick' Twohy, who admits Mad Max 2 may have 'influenced' his draft (!!!), eventually ending up in the hands of a beleaguered Joss 'Buffy The Vampire Slayer' Whedon, who spent 7 weeks doing rewrites.
The performances themselves also mark a low point of the movie. Costner's an average Mad Max, taking himself a little bit too seriously at times - as if he's still on the set of JFK - but he acquits himself reasonably in the action department, seemingly doing all of the stunts himself - some of which are quite jaw-dropping. Dennis Hopper yet again makes me wonder why he was ever rated as a decent actor in the first place. True Romance cameo aside, and notwithstanding earlier greats like Blue Velvet, why has he continued to recycle his clichéd shouty psychotic bad guy from Speed for the past decade and a half? It was barely tolerable the first time around, but here - just one year later - he's back again, hamming it up like Jon Voight in Anaconda. It's just a silly performance, with no threat and no depth. Jeanne Tripplehorn does her best as the love interest, a part she got during her brief 'successful era' where she was still running the coat-tails of Basic Instinct dubious fame (and I bet when they were figuring out each other's porn star names at school, 'Tripplehorn' needed no changing). Other than that there's nobody really significant - a few vaguely familiar faces: Kim Coates, who has played the same wacky bad guy in everything from The Last Boy Scout to CSI: Miami; Michael Jeter, who has played the same nervous neurotic in everything from Tango & Cash to The Green Mile; and you may even be able to spot a young Jack Black in amidst the Pirates, mostly flying his plane around. This was always going to be Costner's baby, so he is the clearly the one with all the screentime.
Even after they got the script 'right' and completed the filming (vastly overbudget by now), getting in the lacklustre performances using a disgruntled cast and crew, that still left post-production. And with a first cut running at 5 hours in length, there needed to be some trimming. The original Director's cut came in at some 3 hours in length, but Costner - against Reynolds' wishes - re-cut (and, in some instances re-filmed segments) it down to a length of 2 hours 16 minutes. After a notoriously - and record-setting - bad reception, a new extended cut surfaced on TV, purporting to be the full 3 hour version, but censored for some scenes of violence and swearing. Eventually - last year - fans got a DVD release of this extended cut, but were marginally disappointed to find it was the same anaesthetised version as had played on TV. Now Waterworld finally hits the new High Definition format, a format capable of seamlessly integrating both cuts, capable of having two differently rated versions of the film on one damn disc - should they so choose. And what did we get? The Theatrical Edition on a bare-bones disc. Sigh, well, at least we still get the swearing and that unpleasant scene at the beginning where Costner's Mariner is urinating. Big sigh.
It does Waterworld no good to have it treated like this, after all it has been through. This movie was never going to win any Oscars, but its extended version filled in a lot of the plot holes and problems that so plagued Costner's shorter version, and it wasn't actually that bad a film in the first place. It was just too pretentious for its own good. It just had too much of Costner's ego on board during the production to be able to stay afloat. Taken as a silly but fun fantasy adventure, as a poor-man's Mad Max at Sea, it is quite enjoyable to say the least. And its extended cut at least gave fans something more akin to what they deserved from such promising concepts.
Nevertheless, despite my initial disappointments over the version that has finally been released on Blu-ray, we have to accept what's on offer. And Costner's theatrical cut of Waterworld is still far from the total and utter clunker that it is often labelled as (that award squarely sits on the shoulders of Costner's writer/director/star follow-up, The Postman, where his ego went even further into overdrive) and looking back on it now that all of the budget furore has died down, a fair amount of guilty pleasure can be absorbed from this, well, unusual film.
Costner's kitted-out trimaran, the whole mutant thing (humans have evolved to have gills and webbed feet, but those that are 'mutated' are outcast), the floating atoll, even the pirate angle. The simple premise of setting a Mad Max 2 reworking at sea actually works wonders - it's an intriguing idea. And I'll never forget the opening shot of Universal's logo of the globe slowly transforming to show the Earth almost entirely engulfed in water. Waterworld certainly has enough going for it to justify everybody watching it at least once - there is nothing quite like seeing an entire movie set in makeshift floating towns in the middle of the sea, especially if it's a reworking of The Road Warrior.