12 AUGUST 1995, Page 37


Waterworld (`12', selected cinemas)

Total meltdown

Mark Steyn

The best image in Waterworld comes even before the titles: the camera closes in on Universal's famous spinning globe logo and we see the oceans rising to engulf the continents. This is the background to the picture: it's the future, and the polar ice caps have melted. But it's also the back- ground of the picture, as Universal strug- gles to avoid drowning in the red ink caused by Waterworid's runaway budget. As everyone knows, this is the most expensive motion picture ever, with a final figure ranging between $175 million and $225 million, according to who's working the abacus. Apparently, it needs to take $400 million just to break even (this is an indus- try, don't forget, where Forrest Gump is still showing a loss).

Kevin Costner's line is that the true cost is $172 million and, as Universal's final revised budget was $200 million, that makes Waterworld the first film in a century of cinema history to come in $28 million under budget. To which D. W. Griffith, King Vidor, Cecil B. de Mille, big spenders who knew how to make it show on screen, would probably reply: yeah, and it looks like it. The biggest thrill comes when four formation villains water-ski across the waves and rocket off submerged ramps but, on the other hand, Esther Williams and full supporting chorus did this just as spectacularly in Skirts Ahoy! — or was it Dangerous When Wet? — filmed on a sound stage for a total budget of $127.83.

Anyway, the second best image comes right after the titles, when we see Costner urinating into a beaker, recycling it through his DIY filtration system and then drinking it. This is what Waterworld was supposed to be: a recycled piece of piss, Mad Max on water — easy. But anything on water is slow and expensive to film and, in the end, water just looks like . . . water. Say what you like about Waterworld, but it doesn't stint on water. There are long shots of water, close-ups of water, overhead shots of water, side shots of water, three-quarter shots of water — water, water everywhere but not a plot in sync. The narrative shifts are purely arbitrary, the story blown hither and yon like a kayak caught up in Hurricane Erin.

The beleaguered townsfolk now live on huge floating rust buckets, but otherwise the characters are straight out of any west- ern and wholly generic. There is a woman and a Kid, and a Star Baddie — Dennis Hopper doing his usual shtick, but for some reason looking like Gary Glitter after he's just been fished out of a septic tank. Hop- per is supported by a troupe of marauding jetskiers called, because of their gasoline- fired vehicles, the Smokers. Costner plays the ambivalent Loner, not good, not bad a sort of passive Smoker. Indeed, in an advance from traditional westerns, he is a Super-Loner, apparently resentful at hav- ing to share the frame with any of his fel- low actors. We see almost as many shots of Costner looking moody at the tiller as we do of water. As the star removed the direc- tor, Kevin Reynolds, and supervised the final edit himself, I presume we have Cost- ner to thank for these, and for reducing Jeanne Tripplehorn — the Woman — to a helpless bystander. 'You just sit there,' he instructs her, and that's all she has to do. Even when she disrobes and offers herself for sex, Costner just pushes her out of the way as if he's irked that her lush, full body has intruded into his brooding long-shot.

You have to sympathise with Costner. His chin is receding into his neck even faster than dry land in Waterworld. He needs a hit, and he needs it now. But the spectacular stunts fall flat for the oldest reason of all: they're just effects; they don't arise from character or drama. You don't need $175 million for that; you need a ream of A4, a new typewriter ribbon and a good pizza delivery service. And Holly- wood still hasn't figured that one out.

Waterworld has an oddly zealous tone, which suggests that this isn't a cynical prod- uct: the Kid is called Enola and the Bad- dies' hold-out is the rusting hulk of the Exxon Valdez. These fellows mean it. But who's going to take a warning on excessive global consumption from guys who blew $175 million on a routine summer action movie? For that price, you could build a new ozone layer. But, just in case Universal are in the market for a sequel, here's my suggestion for Waterworld II: stung by pub- lic criticism of excessive salaries, the chair- man of a privatised water authority in Northern England decides to wreak a hideous revenge . . . At least, it's a plot.