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Waterworld

Review by Carrie Gorringe

Since the film Waterworld ran into financial trouble around last April or so, its difficulties have obscured any other interest in the film itself. From that time, observers seemed to be interested only in hovering overhead, circling with barely-concealed joy as they dubbed Waterworld the symbol of Everything That is Wrong With Hollywood, from inept pre-production to the insufferable egos of Hollywood stars (as if either were a new phenomenon).

So, after all that, what to think of a film which consumed $176 million dollars, a longtime friendship (between Costner and director Reynolds), not to mention Costner's marriage? Unfortunately, not much at all.

It isn't so much that the above-mentioned reports have unfairly poisoned the film's reception; bad press has never, as a matter of course, been a barrier to having a financially-successful film (ask the producers of Nine Months). The real problem with Waterworld, quite simply, is no matter how much it cost, the film was (pardon the expression) dead in the water from day one. This is a real shame, because the film's narrative outline, stripped to its basic elements, must have looked really promising to all of the participants, particularly in the context of the environmental consciousness and growing 'fin-de-siecle' paranoia at both ends of the political spectrum that characterizes the 1990s. The prospect of having to mutate into an amphibious being (Costner's "Mariner") who must distill his own urine in order to obtain supplementary drinking water in a post-apocalyptic world (the polar ice caps have melted and flooded the world) is terrifying, as is a world in which dirt is more valuable than gold or platinum. Moreover, the Mariner and his reluctant crew, a young girl (Majorino, in a performance that becomes increasingly endearing), and her guardian (Tripplehorn, who spends the entire film with an understandably pained look on her face), have to learn to work together in order to effectively utilize a map tattooed on the girl's back which purports to show where the only remaining land mass exists.

They are being pursued by the penultimate in environmental baddies, a gang of "Smokers" led by the Deacon (Hopper in another of his trademark psychopathic roles) who want exactly the same thing, probably so they can pollute the land before selling it off to the highest bidder. The imagery of apocalyptic pollution in this film comes fairly thick and fast: Majorino's character is named "Enola;" the "Smokers"(who smoke only "Black Death" cigarettes) worship "Saint" Joseph Hazelwood and live on the rusted-out hulk of Hazelwood's most infamous commission, the "Exxon Valdez." Given the significance of the story to contemporary history and the symbolism alone, Waterworld could have been a really great film.

However, for whatever reason, the film seems to take all of the potential relevance and symbolic richness and simply squanders them. The source of the problem seems to lie in the inability of the screenwriters to clearly link the symbols and relevance to character motivation. One example is especially illustrative -- and egregious. Central to the film's narrative development is the map on Enola's back; we are shown its source (an old copy of a National Geographic magazine) but given no explanation as to its significance. Why was this symbol, and not some other, chosen by the water-dwellers' predecessors? If the scriptwriters had chosen to answer questions like this, instead of assuming this knowledge as a given, the audience could have become more involved with the quest, as it should be on any epic journey. Waterworld also suffers from too much technology-itis; time after time, much of what appears on screen consists of countless close-ups of unfurling sails on the Mariner's boat in lieu of plot development and/or enrichment. All of this would have been fine in itself (frankly, I wanted to see where the money had been spent, and the sets are very impressive, as they should be) had it not been a patent attempt to conceal major holes in the narrative.

This is not to say that the film doesn't have some great moments. During the last half hour of Waterworld when, not coincidentally, Hopper's character dominates the screen, the film gives an indication of how really exciting it could have been throughout. Wit, intelligence and well-scripted and directed action finally take center stage. The scenes between Majorino and Hopper are absolutely priceless, as the Deacon is reduced by Enola from a villain of absolute evil to a merely-malevolent babysitter at his wits' end with a child who is his equal in wit and cunning, and who openly sneers at him when his kidnapping scheme goes awry. Unfortunately, this section of the film passes all too quickly and the film's ending is less than satisfying.

In the end, Waterworld is not living testimony to the egoism of Hollywood as much as it is an illustration of director Ingmar Bergman's contention that you can't save a film in the editing room.


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