Monday, January 18, 2010

Reeling Backward: "Waterworld"

Watching "The Book of Eli," it got me to thinking about other spectacularly dumb post-apocalyptic films. "Waterworld" has very similar themes, even though in "Eli" people constantly fight over water, whereas in the 1995 Kevin Costner movie there's far too much of it.

I hadn't seen "Waterworld" since it came out in theaters nearly 15 years ago, and it was actually a better movie than I remembered. Yes, it is at times a silly, stupid experience. But it seems to recognize itself for what it is, and has a bit of fun with it. Unlike "Eli," which I'm less forgiving toward because it's so self-serious.

As is often the case, Roger Ebert said it best: "'Waterworld' is a decent futuristic action picture with some great sets, some intriguing ideas, and a few images that will stay with me. It could have been more, it could have been better, and it could have made me care about the characters. It's one of those marginal pictures you're not unhappy to have seen, but can't quite recommend."

There was much ridiculing of Costner's get-up in the movie. He plays the Mariner, a mysterious loner who travels a world completely covered in water (or so everyone thinks). He wears a strange array of leather vest, striped pants, long hair pulled back in a high knot, and various dangly bits and weapons.

The Mariner cruises around in a fancy trimaran that he's outfitted with all sorts of contraptions so he can pilot her alone, raising the sails and doing slick maneuvers and such. Like the classic loner of this type of films he's a man of violence but not a bad heart, who wants to be left alone but finds himself caring for some townsfolk he stumbles across.

Since there's no towns, an atoll will have to do. The Mariner puts in there to do some trading, but gets assaulted when he's found to be a mutant. He has gills behind his ears, webbed toes and can swim and breathe underwater. He's about to be executed when the Smokers attack.

The equivalent of the roving gangs of marauders from "The Road Warrior," the Smokers kill and destroy in the pursuit of the few remaining natural resources: Fresh water, dirt, food, etc. They're led by Deacon, the bald-headed villain played by Dennis Hopper.

Deacon gets his eye blown out by the Mariner during the attack on the atoll, and spends the rest of the movie wearing a jury-rigged patch over it -- but not before a hilariously creepy scene in which the Smoker doctor tries to implant a huge fake-looking prosthetic eye into the gaping socket. Hopper is a real hoot in the movie, seeming to realize what a big joke it all is.

The civilians are Helen (Jeanne Tripplehorn), a comely lass, and Enola (Tina Majorino), a young girl with a strange tattoo on her back that turns out to be a map to the last dry land. Deacon wants the map, so he sends out his goons after the Mariner and his passengers.

Like the MacGuffin of the Bible in "The Book of Eli," Enola's tattoo isn't well thought out as a plot device. It's a very simple map, with a big globe and some latitude and longitude numbers, that could easily be copied down after a brief glance. There's no need to actually have the girl in your possession to use the knowledge.

Also, it's made explicit that Enola originally came from dry land, and must have been sent out by her parents/protectors into the watery void. Why? Two bodies are found when they finally reach dry land, peacefully nestled side by side, and somebody says something to the effect that they must have known they were going to die. From what, illness? Both at the same time? Seems unlikely. And even so, if you're going to give your tiny daughter a tattoo so she can find her way back, it's not very helpful to put it on her back where she can't see it.

Director Kevin Reynolds, who previously teamed with Costner on "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves," stages some nice action sequences in the days before CGI. The film went massively over budget, and various stories even claim that Reynolds walked off the set, or was fired, due to conflicts with his star, who directed the final scenes himself. Whatever the case, their friendship and professional relationship ended with "Waterworld."

2 stars

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