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'Waterworld' - the Film

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Waterworld is a 1995 Hollywood post-apocalyptic film starring Kevin Costner. Made for over $170 million, almost three times the cost of Jurassic Park (1993), plus over $60 million spent on advertising, it was the most expensive film ever made at the time of release1. Despite rumours of it spectacularly failing at the Box Office it in fact just about managed to break even and has since made a modest profit through home video sales and broadcast fees. The premise, a science-fiction dystopia combining one of the most bankable stars of the time and a director with whom he had enjoyed a close working relationship, at first seemed promising. However, the film suffered from natural disasters and reports of a fundamental breakdown in working relationship between the director and star.

Critically the film attracted mixed reviews. The overall consensus was that the finished film was a reasonably enjoyable, average film that put an aquatic spin on films such as Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior. Considered a satisfactory film, just not one worth $230 million, it asks: what would life be like on an Earth without dry land?


In the future the polar ice caps have melted and covered the whole Earth with water. Survivors live on the sea and either inhabit floating towns called atolls, or are Drifters who live singly on their own boats, sailing from place to place. All are preyed on in this kill-or-be-killed world by the evil Smokers, pirates with oil-fired boats and guns led by the one-eyed Deacon.

The Smokers believe that a tattoo on the back of a young girl called Enola is a map to the mythical Dryland and will stop at nothing to find her. A Drifter called simply the Mariner visits the atoll where Enola lives with her mother-figure Helen and an elderly crackpot called Gregor to trade some dirt for supplies, although the atoll has almost nothing of value. It is revealed that the Mariner is a mutation as he has gills behind his ears that allow him to breathe underwater, which leads to him being caged and sentenced to death. Before the sentence is carried out the Smokers attack the atoll, breaking through its vast Kong-like gates. Although Helen and Enola had planned to escape in Gregor's gas balloon, it leaves without them. Helen rescues the Mariner from his cage in exchange for him agreeing to take both her and Enola to safety on his boat.

Despite mutually disliking each other at first, the grumpy Mariner gradually becomes fond of both Enola and Helen. He takes Helen down in a diving bell to see where he got his dirt: a vast underwater city2. When they return to the surface they discover they have been found by the Smokers who have taken Enola and set their boat alight. Helen and the Mariner escape by swimming underwater, with the Mariner using his gills to breathe for them both.

The boat fire is spotted by the balloon and Gregor rescues them, taking them to where the survivors of the atoll have gathered. A jet ski appears from nowhere and the Mariner uses it to approach the Smokers' base, the oil supertanker Exxon Valdez. After rescuing Enola the heroes in the balloon follow the map on her back and eventually locate Dryland, a tropical island that was once Mount Everest.


MarinerKevin Costner
DeaconDennis Hopper
HelenJeanne Tripplehorn
EnolaTina Majorino
Old GregorMichael Jeter

Despite the huge budget, the film's cast was largely unknown. Kevin Costner is an Oscar-winning actor who has appeared in such films as The Untouchables (1987), Field of Dreams (1989), Dances with Wolves (1990), for which he was Oscar-nominated for Best Actor and won Best Picture and Best Director, and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, which was the second-most successful film of 1991 behind only Terminator 2: Judgement Day.

Dennis Hopper (1936-2010) was an American actor who is best known for co-writing and directing Easy Rider (1969) which resulted in a Best Original Screenplay nomination, and for starring in films including Blue Velvet (1986) and Hoosiers (1986), which resulted in a Best Supporting Actor nomination.


The Mariner

The Mariner, the film's nameless hero, is unusually introduced with us seeing him drinking his own urine. He is a Drifter, a trader who always exchanges goods when meeting another Drifter according to their code. Although he appears fully human, in fact he is a mutation and has gills that allow him to breathe underwater. Although he is the only mutation met in the film, the reaction of those on the atoll implies that other mutations have been known to exist, but are presumably rare. The Mariner doesn't talk of a family and it appears he is the only mutation he knows of. As he is imprisoned in a cage for being different and may well have had previous unpleasant experiences, he does not like humans.

He likes to live alone on his trimaran with only a lemon tree for company and spends his time eating eyeballs and diving for bits and bobs from the ocean floor. He is not a nice character and is happy to leave people to die. He even considers killing Enola, the young girl, to preserve his limited water supply and possibly the only reason he doesn't is because Helen offers to have sex with him instead. Although he declines this offer, after she takes her clothes off he hits her with a shovel. He throws Enola into the ocean when she annoys him, but allows Helen to rescue her and then violently slashes their hair off with a machete. He even starts to pimp Helen out to a raving Drifter, encouraging him to have sex with her despite her objections in exchange for some paper, but then decides to kill him instead.

The Mariner does gradually become fond of his passengers, such as teaching Enola how to swim. His trimaran is quite an advanced vessel and boasts an instantly erecting sail. It also is defended by a harpoon and has an underwater periscope to allow him to see what is beneath the waves, plus an extra kite sail and the diving bell that he uses to show Helen an underwater city.


Enola is a young girl with a tattoo on her back said to be a map to Dryland, which is regarded as a myth. She loves drawing, even when the baddies are shooting at her - she draws animals and even drew the Mariner locked up in a cage. She will draw on anything, including the Mariner's boat, which angers him.

At the end of the film it is revealed that Enola grew up on Dryland, which is where she saw the trees and horses that she draws. Her home there is discovered along with the remains of people who are presumably her parents. Quite why, before they died, they decided to tattoo their location on her back is unknown. Having decided to prominently tattoo this information on her back so that it is visible to everyone who sees her, we never learn why they tattooed the co-ordinates in an obscure language backwards to prevent people from deciphering it. Nor why she left Dryland to live on the atoll with Helen.

Enola is 'alone' spelt backwards.

The Deacon and the Smokers

The Smokers are a large number of debased, immoral people who live on the Exxon Valdez, a giant oil tanker. The Exxon Valdez actually existed. In 1989 it notoriously was responsible for what at the time was the largest oil spill in US waters after it struck a reef in Prince William Sound, Alaska, polluting 11,000 square miles of ocean. The ship was under the command of Captain Joseph Hazelwood, who is widely alleged to have been drinking at the time of the disaster.

The Smokers are ruled by the Deacon, a one-eyed pirate who keeps them obedient by distributing tins of spam and cigarettes. They have an armada of oil-powered vehicles including an aeroplane. Their guns allow them to devastate and destroy everything they encounter. Although they are rapidly running out of oil, which they call 'go juice', they will stop at nothing to find Dryland, which they believe is not only their destination, but their destiny. They have a form of religion in which Captain Joe Hazelwood is worshipped as 'Saint Joe'. They have adapted the Exxon Valdez to allow it to be rowed like a gigantic galley.

The Making Of

For 20 years, Steven Spielberg had directed Universal Studios' biggest hits. Yet as Spielberg had just founded his own studio, DreamWorks SKG, Universal needed to find someone else capable of creating blockbuster success. At the time one of the world's biggest stars was Kevin Costner. Costner was keen to appear in a film on condition that they appoint director Kevin Reynolds, with whom he had successfully worked before, and not their first choice Robert Zemeckis, the director of such films as Forrest Gump and Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Filming began in June 1994 with a $100 million budget, even though the production did not have a finished script and the main villain hadn't been cast.

Waterworld was the first major Hollywood film to be filmed almost entirely on water. Filming took place off Hawaii's Kona Coast. With filming taking place in Hawaii, an added difficulty and expense was that most of the set and props had to be shipped to the location from mainland America. The biggest set, the atoll, had a ¼mile circumference and was the largest floating articulated structure in the world at the time, designed to float and move like a vessel. Lockheed were commissioned to make the atoll, which was based on a number of barges and located a mile offshore from Hawaii's Kawaihae Harbor. The atoll could be rotated to ensure that no matter which direction the atoll would be filmed from it was possible to ensure that open sea was in the background (rotating it 180° took six hours).

A month after filming began, Dennis Hopper was cast as the Deacon. Kevin Costner was going through a divorce, which left him distracted. Although filming Waterworld was expected to take 96 days it actually took over 150, as bad-weather caused delays. Hawaii's Kona coast was subject to 45mph winds, which frequently blew the set out of position and ruined shots. Filming shut down three times due to hurricane alerts and the cast and crew were often caught off guard by sudden storms. Sets and props were destroyed and the fierce weather even threatened Kevin Costner and his co-stars' lives on more than one occasion. Most notably, the Slave Colony set was a 35-foot steel structure that sank in strong winds. Although Slavers are mentioned several times, the Slavers themselves were all-but removed from the finished film as their set had been lost.

Even relatively simple scenes were difficult to film as the motion of the water would constantly change the required camera angles. Many of the cast and crew suffered from seasickness, but there were no toilets on the boats used by the crew or on the sets. The actors and crew thus needed to be ferried to a barge near the shore that carried portaloos. The director described the experience with the words,

[When] you're shooting on this atoll to maintain this notion that there's no dry land, you always have to shoot out to sea, away from the land. So we chose a location where we had about a 180 degree view of open water. Nevertheless, any time when you're shooting, there could be a ship appear in the background, or something like that, and you had to make a choice. Do I hold up the shot, wait for the ship to move out, or do we shoot and say we're going to incur this additional cost in post-production of trying to remove the ship from the background? And at that time, CGI was not at the point it is now, it was a bigger deal. And so, even though if you're shooting across the atoll and you're shooting out onto open water, when you turn around and do the reverses, for the action, you had to rotate the entire atoll, so that you're still shooting out to open water. Those are the kinds of things that people don't realise.

Something as simple as if you're shooting a scene between two boats, and you're trying to shoot The Mariner on his craft, another boat or whatever, you've got a camera boat shooting his boat, and then the other boat in the background. Well, when you're on open water things tend to drift apart. So you have to send lines down from each of those boats to the bottom, to anchor them so that they somewhat stay in frame... When you're on water, everything's constantly moving apart, drifting apart, so you have to try to hold things down somewhat...

Logistically, it's crazy. Each day you shoot on the atoll with all those extras, we had to transport those people from dry land out to the location and so you're getting hundreds of people through wardrobe and everything. You're putting them on boats, transporting them out to the atoll, and trying to get everybody in position to do a shot. Then when you break for lunch, you have to put everybody on boats and take them back in to feed them.

Much of the film was set on the Mariner's trimaran, which was 60ft long, with an 85ft sail. The Smokers' supertanker was 600ft long and 120ft wide with a six-storey bridge and it was a set built in a field near Los Angeles. 16 propane tanks were used to simulate the explosions that destroyed the ship at the end of the film. Many of the underwater sequences used the water tank at aerospace company McDonnell-Douglas that was usually used for astronaut weightlessness training.

The film's other constant problem was the script. Unfinished when filming started, it was rewritten every night in the hotel rooms near the set, with Costner rewriting his own lines. The script underwent 36 different drafts by six different writers, including David Twohy and Joss Whedon3. Hired to be a script doctor, Whedon flew out to the set to do last minute rewrites but he reportedly found Costner unwilling to listen to any ideas other than his own and found the experience one of the worst of his professional career. He later described his time as 'Seven weeks of hell'.

By December 1994, with production running severely behind schedule and after a series of serious arguments with Costner, Reynolds chose not to remain as the film's director, leaving Costner to finish directing the film. Reynolds was widely quoted as saying: 'Kevin should only star in movies he directs. That way he can work with his favourite actor and favourite director.'

Reynolds' original vision of an epic, three-hour film was considered to be too costly and Universal planned to change the release to a two-hour version4. The script was simplified and some of the remaining stunts, such as one showing the aircraft landing on the deck of the Exxon Valdez, eliminated.

The media, loving a story of a film in peril, printed stories exaggerating the film's difficulties and claimed that members of the crew had died making the film. They also came up with nicknames for the film including 'Kevin's Gate' after 1980's Heaven's Gate, the failure of which led to the collapse of studio United Artists. Others included 'Fishtar' after another flop Ishtar (1987), with Kevin Costner rebranded 'Kevin Costalot'. It is largely because of this negative press reaction that it is widely believed that Waterworld was a huge flop when in fact it was a modest success.

Extended Edition

Waterworld's standard version is a 110-minute-long release in the UK; however, in the US a TV Edition, later branded as the Extended Edition, has been released. It was standard practice in the 1980s and 1990s that when US television companies purchased the rights to broadcast films, the amount paid was based on the length of the film. The longer the film, the more money charged. Film companies exploited this by making existing films longer in order to get more money from the television companies, such as by including deleted scenes. The TV Edition of Waterworld is 45 minutes longer.

This contains more character scenes between the Mariner, Helen and Enola and also tidies up some of the film's apparent plot holes, for example revealing where the Mariner suddenly gets a jet ski from. It also reveals that the Dryland discovered at the end is in fact Mount Everest. Director Kevin Reynolds later described this by saying:

One of the things I've always been perplexed by in the version that was released theatrically... and the reason that I did the film, was that at the very end of the picture... there's a scene when they finally reach dry land and The Mariner’s sailing off and he leaves the two women behind, and in the script they're standing up on this high point and they're watching him sail away, and the little girl stumbles on something. And they look down and clear the grass away and that's this plaque. And it says, 'Here, near this spot, 1953, Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary first set foot on the summit of Everest'. And that was in the script and I was like, 'Oh, of course! Wow, the highest point on the planet! That would have been dry land!'. And we got it! We shot that. And they left it out of the picture. And I'm like, 'Whaaat?!'. It's like the Statue of Liberty moment in 'Planet of the Apes'. And I was like, 'Why would you leave that out?'.


Although the film has a poor reputation, there are some enjoyable moments right from the very start, when the Universal logo of the spinning Earth floods until no land is left. Although the central idea that the whole world would be underwater if the ice caps melted is untrue, it does make for a thought-provoking film, showing a world in which what floats, such as plastic, is prized. Soil is a prized commodity, and paper too is rare and valuable, although curiously metal, cigarettes and petrol seem to be the most abundant material of all. The oceans are inhabited by giant sea creatures, although these are scarcely seen.

In this dystopia, women are seen as sex objects. When the Mariner arrives at the atoll he is asked to impregnate a young girl to widen the gene pool. When he declines it arouses suspicion and the family turn on him in an instant. Helen offers herself to the Mariner and later is offered to the unhinged Drifter they encounter, who even desires the very young Enola.

There is no denying that the film contains very impressive stunts, especially the Smokers' attack on the atoll. The film doesn't make a great deal of sense, as we never learn why the Smokers are searching for the girl with a map tattoo in the first place nor how they know it is a map. The hero is very unsympathetic and the baddies' motivation is never really explained but if you are happy to sit back and watch the show rather than question the plot it is definitely entertaining.


Waterworld overtook James Cameron's films Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991) and True Lies (1994) to briefly become the most expensive film of all time until James Cameron made Titanic (1997).

Waterworld won the 1996 Worst Supporting Actor Golden Raspberry for Dennis Hopper, although it lost Worst Picture and Worst Director to Showgirls. Kevin Costner lost the Worst Actor category to Tommy Collins in Jury Duty.

The film inspired a theme park attraction named Waterworld: A Live Sea War Spectacular, which has proven to be immensely popular and successful at Universal Studios theme parks.

Kevin Costner went on to direct, produce and star in The Postman (2007), another post-apocalyptic film in which he plays a nomadic hero. This was a complete flop.

Waterworld continues to influence other films. For example in Moana (2016), the heroes encounter the water-based Kakamora who are the coconut equivalent of Waterworld's Smokers.

1This works out as costing $1.3 million for each minute of screen time.2Although never stated, this is Denver, a city located in the centre of the United States of America that, being at the foot of the Rocky Mountains, is a mile above current sea level.3Most famous for creating television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003) and Firefly (2002), as well as for writing and directing Avengers Assemble (2012) and Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015).4In the 1950s, Hollywood film lengths jumped from an average of 90 minutes to over two hours in a measure to compete with television. In the early 1980s film lengths reduced to under the two hour mark when the home video market became a considerable source of income - long films could not be released on home video without a loss of picture or sound quality, or the film being split across two cassettes. It was also felt that a 90-minute film could potentially have almost twice as many showings as a three-hour film in the same period of time, and therefore might have a more profitable opening weekend.

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