Bad title, I know. Sounds like the opening line in a poem about a turd. Well…
The idea was high concept at it’s highest. It was the 90’s and Hollywood checkbooks were open. Apparently, producing a monster budget film was just as boast-worthy as having a record breaking hit; for A-list Producers, anyway. This movie took tropes of the modern western, changing the dirt of the open range to a wide ocean under a big sky, trading horses for jet skis and replacing outlaw gangs with… outlaw pirates (sort of?). It was Road Warrior on the high seas and Kevin Costner was the fish with no name in Waterworld (Kevin Reynolds, 1995).
That said, let’s get off the “Waterworld was the biggest flop ever” boat. (See what I did there?) I’ve rifled through a number of lists of box office bombs, flops and losers; finding Waterworld on one and fairly low on that particular list. The movie didn’t make the Wikipedia list of 50 Box Office Bombs, or the Buzzfeed 25 Biggest Box Office Bombs of All Time, nor did it appear on a whole lot of other lists either. Why am I defending Waterworld? I’m not. I’ll admit I really like the movie. It’s big, ambitiously goofy, and a real adventure in a pretty original post-apocalyptic world. However, it ain’t the best movie I’ve ever seen. It’s a bit clunky in it’s execution, the plot’s a bit thin and the direction is kind of flat. Admittedly, it’s more Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (George Miller, 1985) than Road Warrior (George Miller, 1981).
The film is held together by a stoic Kevin Costner, playing against type at the pinnacle of his career. Waterworld was pure star power on display. Not so much the movie itself, but the fact that the project exists at all. He had already won two oscars (Best Director and Best Picture for Dances With Wolves, 1990) and had a list of bonafide hits including The Untouchables (Brian De Palma, 1987), Field of Dreams (Phil Alden Robinson, 1989) and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (Kevin Reynolds, 1991). He was respected and well liked in the Hollywood community and had begun to wield his star power like an old school movie star. He had officially become a shot-caller and Universal surrounded him with yes-men. Okay, I could be making up that last bit, but everything from his buddy director, to shooting location (on the water. For real!), and an out of control budget allowed to balloon from 100 to 200 million dollars, making it the largest budget in film history up to that point… I don’t think I’m too far off from the truth.
Waterworld wasn’t the first time Costner played a little against type; his type being good-ol’ American charming Midwestern boy (who was surprisingly raised in Compton, CA!). He had already played a not-so-bad bad guy in A Perfect World (Clint Eastwood 1993), but this time he went ugly, as well. He was scruffy with unkempt stringy hair and a generally foul tempered attitude. It was fun seeing him that way, playing against his generally clean cut, good natured and all-American type. You just knew that the stand up hero guy was underneath all the hard crusty gruffness, and I for one cheered when the Costner hero archetype, sans look, showed up in the final reel.
I like Kevin Costner and I’m not ashamed to say it. 20 years after Waterworld, he’s still the same. Still an all-American hero type who’s affable, charming and pleasant to watch, if a little wooden. His acting has often been called cardboard and flat, and people referred to him as the new Jimmy Stewart. (There are worse actors to be compared with.) Like Stewart, Costner is just likable. But even with the wooden flatness, there’s something compelling about the characters he plays or the way he plays them. He doesn’t chew much scenery or give in to histrionics, but he can pull off a quiet intensity that flows with the current of whatever story is being told.
In Waterworld, Mariner (Costner) is calm, methodical and tactically proactive. Always aware of where he is and what’s going on. He’s also intimidating and eerily unpredictable. Costner pulls it all off by remaining still and even keeled throughout the proceedings, which makes his sudden violence that much more dynamic. I don’t know if Mariner was written that way – I’ve never read the script – or if Costner just played the role like that – because that’s how he is in life – but I do know that it worked. Waterworld is not the greatest movie, but it is damn fun, mostly due to Kevin Costner. (And Dennis Hopper wasn’t bad either!)