1995 was a pretty epic year. Michael Jordan returned to the NBA, Windows 95 launched, and we were all blessed with what was then the biggest blockbuster ever: Waterworld. With a final budget of $235 million, Kevin Reynold’s sci-fi dystopian thriller was revolutionary in its design and ambition but fell short in several aspects. I revisited this laughable and cringe-worthy film in order to deliver this important message to you, dear BMD readers: although Waterworld was a critical and financial flop at the time of its release, it today serves as an eerily prescient environmental parable.
The Universal Pictures logo before the film provided a time lapse with sea levels rising to submerge landfall while voice-over narration vaguely discloses "the polar ice caps have melted, covering the world with water." This sets the stage for the dystopian future but fails to ever mention a year in which the story takes place or what exactly caused the earth’s current condition. The Sierra Club set out to debunk the film’s timeline and concluded that sea levels would have to rise 216 feet to submerge major cities underwater, and the length of time for the polar ice caps to melt entirely was estimated at around 5,000 years while Waterworld only implied decades. While the representation was embellished, it still draws attention to the cause.
In 1995, most people were excited about another Kevin Costner film. And since there was lots of drama around the film’s troubled production and budget overages, folks ultimately wanted to see what all the hype was about. Sadly, the conversation focused on excessive explosions, extravagant practical sets built on water, and fight scenes on jet skis, and not the plausibility of this one day actually happening, or a reflection of what humans are doing to our planet. However, climate change is very much in our political and daily conversations today. Daily image updates provide data on the current conditions of Arctic sea ice with September holding the lowest levels. According to NASA, Arctic sea ice is now declining at a rate of 13.2 percent per decade. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) latest takeaways in 2014 indicated that there is stronger evidence of the many ways that the planet is experiencing effects from human-caused climate change. Examples include rising sea-levels, shrinking glaciers, decreasing snow and ice cover, warmer oceans and more frequent and intense extreme weather events (ahem, Hurricane Harvey ring a bell?).
In the first scene of Waterworld, we are introduced to Costner’s Mariner character recycling his urine through a contraption that allows him to consume and pour it onto his small, potted lime plant. If you’re going to make a filtration device for drinking water, I’d prefer to utilize ocean water before your own urine, but to each their own.
The survivors of the great flood built dwellings called “atolls” designed to keep terrorizing stragglers at bay. When The Mariner arrives with a jar of dirt (the most precious commodity), the villagers allow him entry into their domain. However, once they find out that evolution has caused him to develop webbed feet and gills, things quickly get ugly. They sentence him to death because apparently it’s not cool to develop mutations that actually allow you to fully survive in this new world covered with water. They lock him up to eventually be killed or “recycled” instead of, you know, actually utilizing him as a fucking asset.
The antagonists of the film are fittingly named “Smokers” who are basically pirates who chain smoke cigarettes and rely on gas-guzzling modes of transportation, unlike The Mariner who prefers wind as a renewable resource for his catamaran. If you replace a suit and bad hairstyle with goggles covering a missing eye and lots of leather, the leader of the Smokers resembles our current Commander-in-chief but in more ways than just appearance alone. Deacon (Dennis Hopper) is blatantly anti-science and screams out “God made both man and fish, and no combination thereof. He does not abide the notion of evolution!” He possesses a quasi-religious demeanor and teaches his followers of The Church of Eternal Growth to “take and ye shall receive.” The Smokers also worship a former historical captain of the tanker, "Saint Joe" (original Exxon Valdez Captain Joseph Hazelwood). Their ultimate mission is to kidnap a young girl named Enola (Tina Majorino) who bears the tattoo of a map to the mythological “Dryland.” Once this location is found, Deacon declares, “if there’s a river we'll dam it, and if there's a tree we'll ram it.” Considering the fact that the US pulled out of the Paris Agreement and radical changes are being made in the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency), you can’t help but think Trump and Deacon share similar mindsets.
Fighting ensues, The Mariner escapes with the help of Enola’s caretaker, Helen (Jeanne Tripplehorn), while we’re bombarded with lavish pyrotechnics and elaborate sea-doo chases which are actually quite stunning. The camera work and framing is effective, but the scenes (and even costume design) look like a literal watered-down rip-off of Mad Max.
When The Smokers successfully kidnap Enola and take her back to their tanker that sports a cute “Nuke The Whales” bumper sticker, Helen and The Mariner (complete with his dreadful flat-affect and single-shell earring) embark to rescue her. Once they are reunited and escape, they find “Dryland” because the map on her back was upside down the whole time. It’s revealed that “Dryland” is actually Mount Everest, and The Mariner awkwardly sails off into the distance solo because despite his love affair with Helen - who was able to see past him selling her body to a stranger for paper, throwing Enola overboard, and butchering her hair with a knife when she defied him - he decides the sea is his home after all.
The storyline is ridiculous but the environmental and political parallels definitely stick out even twenty-two years later. Despite four Raspberry Award nominations, pitiful dialogue, and an over-the-top set that literally sank, Waterworld is an environmentally poignant film with signs of a world to come - albeit an exaggerated one - if we ultimately don’t get our shit together.