Arrow Heads Vol. 55 — WATERWORLD: The Grand Post-Apocalyptic Swashbuckler

Arrow outdoes itself with a gorgeous home video package

Arrow Heads — UK-based Arrow Films has quickly become one of the most exciting and dependable names in home video curation and distribution, creating gorgeous Blu-ray releases with high quality artwork and packaging, and bursting with supplemental content, often of their own creation. From the cult and genre fare of Arrow Video to the artful cinema of Arrow Academy, this column is devoted to their weird and wonderful output.

Spoilers ahoy for this 20+ year old movie

In 1995, I fell in love with Waterworld before the movie even began. I vividly remember seeing that familiar Universal logo appear on the big screen and then… something different happens. The camera starts to zoom in on the Universal globe. The ice caps on the globe melt, and we’re ushered (through narration and an instantly rousing James Newton Howard score) into a new kind of world unlike anything ever before seen on the big screen… a post-apocalyptic world of water. I was 15 and had been aware of the negative buzz around the production; that it was the most expensive movie ever made and had supposedly ballooned out of control. I don’t even know how I came upon information like that back in 1995, but I was aware. That said, 15 was a perfect age to experience the sheer seismic grandeur of Waterworld. And it turns out 38 is also a great age to revisit it as well.

There are a whole bunch of films I adored when I was 15 that really don’t hold up. And over the years I saw Waterworld a dozen times, I’m sure. But it had been quite a while, and getting to see a massively extended cut (the “Ulysses” cut) on this decked out Arrow Blu-ray release was one of those experiences I just had to seek out. And let me tell you: In spite of, and perhaps because of, all its indulgences, Waterworld remains an ambitious and adventurous swashbuckler the likes of which will never be seen again.

Was I aware at 15 that it was a blatant Mad Max clone? Probably in some vague sense. But I’ve since come to adore the subgenre of films that owe their existence to George Miller’s absolutely incredible (and superior to Waterworld) post-apocalyptic series. So why hold Waterworld to any kind of different standard than, say, 1990: The Bronx Warriors? This is the kind of thing, however, that only Hollywood can do: an endeavor so expensive and challenging to pull off that it could only be done by becoming the most expensive movie ever made up to that point. I do often decry the allotment of resources that Hollywood sometimes deems necessary, but I’d be lying if I said the spectacle of Waterworld didn’t take me to that magic place of adventure that only cinema really can.

Perhaps Waterworld was such a punching bag at the time because America’s love for building up a new “it” celebrity is second only to America’s love of tearing one down. Star Kevin Costner was one of the biggest A-listers on the planet at the time of Waterworld’s release, and the rumor mill about a troubled production became some kind of allegory for Costner being vain and filled with hubris. There is, of course, some possible truth there, but movies like Waterworld also don’t get made without a big name attached to them.

Regardless, I believe Kevin Costner is a significant reason why Waterworld holds up. His Mariner character is a linchpin that keeps Waterworld entertaining and engaging throughout. Yes, he’s a Mad Max archetype — the silent, brooding, survivalist with no concern for anyone but himself who will eventually have his heart melted by two women who make him into the ultimate weapon: a believer in hope. But it appears to have been on Costner’s insistence that the Mariner remains such a grouchy bastard for such a long period of time. I remember critics in the ’90s being asconce that the hero of Waterworld was so unlikeable, but I always enjoyed that element. It is the Mariner’s mutations, however, that I find add such a huge entertainment value to Waterworld. It’s the twist (besides, you know… all the water) that really makes this its own separate experience from Mad Max. It stands to reason that humankind would begin to adapt to a new aquatic environment and perhaps evolve. Maybe it’d take more than a couple hundred years, but then we wouldn’t get all the fantastic setpieces that Peter Rader and David Twohy’s script wrings out of that simple mutation premise.

Waterworld begins with a truly epic standoff ripped right out of a classic western. The Mariner utilizes his various superpowers, such as his webbed feet and breathable gills, as well as his iconic and highly cinematic boat (again reminiscent of Mad Max) to best both a scavenger who has stolen from him, and a small group of Smokers (the film’s marauding gang of villains) on jet skies. It’s thrilling, sets up the world and the players within it, and takes full advantage of the key ideas in the script. Next the Mariner heads to the atoll, Waterworld’s version of a city. Famously one of the most expensive sets ever created, it was big enough for the Mariner’s boat to sail through its gates in camera, and it remains a remarkable piece of production design fully utilized to flesh out the film’s first act. It’s here that the Mariner encounters Enola (Tina Majorino), the little girl with a map to Dry Land tattooed on her back, and her caretaker Helen (Jeanne Tripplehorn). One Smoker raid and another harrowing action scene later, our Mariner ends up on the high seas with these two ladies, and the atoll is left a shell of its former self. With the Smokers (following their leader The Deacon Of The Deez, Mr. Dennis Hopper himself, gnawing on the scenery) after Enola to find Dry Land for themselves, we are now locked in an unavoidable confrontation between the Mariner and the Smokers.

Loaded with wonderfully shot and edited action/spectacle set pieces that take full advantage of the unbelievable sets and of the Mariner’s abilities, Waterworld’s characters may wrestle with hopelessness and despair, but viewers are treated to all the wonders they can dream of in a film such as this. Particularly awe-inspiring is when the Mariner takes Helen down to the bottom of the ocean in a diving bell to show her the truth about the world she’s grown up in and yet knows nothing about. It’s visually impressive even today and builds up the world being established immensely. It’s fascinating to explore a society hundreds of years removed from the apocalypse in which they know nothing of the world as it once was. It’s equally enjoyable to ponder the fact that, through his mutations and survival mentality, the Mariner has come to understand the truth about the world better than any of his more “human” peers.

A couple of other highlights that similarly showcase a very early use of CGI are when the Mariner shows Helen and Enola how he eats when he’s starving. It involves a well-edited and awesome sequence in which he uses himself as bait to lure a massive mutant sea creature. Later the Mariner infuriates the Deacon in an impossibly high speed escape using a previously hidden kite-sail that feels like Waterworld’s version of Nos (nitrous oxide, for speed). I mention these moments because they’re fantastic updates on the Mad Max formula, they’re executed for maximum spectacle, and they expand upon what you had previously known about the world or the characters.

The film’s climax and ending also work like gangbusters. The big confrontation between Costner’s Mariner and Hopper’s Deacon is appropriately outsized, with spear guns and anchors used as zip lines and explosions everywhere. There’s even a dirigible-aided bungee jump?! (Bungee jumping was so extreme in the 1990s.) Character-wise, it all moves things along to their natural conclusions, with the Mariner shedding his tough exterior and risking it all to save Enola from her captors. The finale brings our rag-tag group of survivors to an Eden-like Dry Land (something discussed as only myth or legend throughout). This was, of course, Enola’s birthplace and where her tattoo originated. It’s also confirmed in the Ulysses Cut to be the top of Mount Everest (something my teenage mind theorized about but was never confirmed in the Theatrical Cut). Despite coming to love Enola and Helen, however, the Mariner is a creature designed for the open water, and like all the best Western heroes, he must ride off into the sunset alone, to face an uncertain destiny.

I honestly love it all. The outrageous and unsubtle environmental messaging goes so far as to specify that The Deez (Deacon’s oil tanker fortress) is in fact the infamous Exxon Valdez. In the 1990s that felt on the nose. It’s still on the nose, but I appreciate the blatant potshot at a corporate giant. I doubt studios would be so bold today. The standard but classic hero’s journey undertaken by the resourceful and surprising Mariner feels appropriately grand for a movie this big. And I’d be loathe not to mention the gorgeous cinematography from the great Dean Semler. The camera is a significant ingredient in the capturing of that swashbuckling spirit. The Mariner swoops around his boat with ease, practically flying with ropes and pulleys. It’s captured with an effortless grace. Director Kevin Reynolds is often somehow blamed for the enormous budget and various delays. But I think time has been kind to Reynolds’ film. No one was majorly hurt on a film where safety was a big concern. The budget is also all there up on the screen, with an epic scale befitting its bloated budget. And it’s rousing and gorgeous, too! From a memorable score to beautiful camera work, to strong and fun performances… Reynolds should be applauded rather than vilified.

Waterworld absolutely follows a template and borrows generously from the Mad Max formula. Sure, there’s probably a lot of ego on display as well. But point me to a Marvel film or mega-sequel blowing up the box office today that doesn’t do the same exact things. And sure, Waterworld was the most expensive film ever at the time of production… but that record wasn’t held long and has been eclipsed many times over since then. What remains is a rip roaring spectacle filled with a hard-fought hope and warnings about an impending ecological disaster that has only gotten more relevant as time has marched on. Waterworld may not be a masterpiece, but it is certainly a shining example of large scale entertainment as only Hollywood can deliver.

The Package

Arrow Video has outdone itself with a truly stunning home video release for Waterworld. 3 discs. 3 different cuts of the film. Gorgeous new cover art featuring a heavy duty box that also includes a booklet with half a dozen insightful essays and photos of various Waterworld marketing and products that were sold at the time. It’s the kind of home video release that reminds you why you’re a movie fan and a home video advocate. Having never seen the extended version myself, I was thrilled to check out the Ulysses Cut of the film. Being so much longer than the theatrical cut, I will say I didn’t find the experiences to be wildly different. I noted a long scene on the Atoll featuring a debate about the Mariner’s fate when he was briefly captured which wasn’t in the theatrical version. And then there’s a lot of content at the end which I genuinely liked, such as Helen gifting the Mariner with the name Ulysses, and Enola discovering a plaque which specifies that Dry Land is indeed Mount Everest. Otherwise, it didn’t differ drastically from the theatrical cut I’ve seen so many times before.

This release is a blast. All home video collectors will enjoy the gorgeous package, and fans of adventure films will relish a thorough trip down memory lane. Perhaps some will discover Waterworld for the very first time through this Arrow release, and there couldn’t be a better way to discover it here in 2019 (except perhaps a killer rep screening on the big screen). Don’t hesitate to pick up a copy of Waterworld.

And I’m Out.

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