Film review: Waterworld

Hero is clearly inspired by `Mad Max,' only meaner, but there's action aplenty.

Published: Wednesday, Aug. 2 1995 12:00 a.m. MDT

Back in the '50s, "The Creature from the Black Lagoon" was dubbed "The Gill-Man," a nickname that also applies to Kevin Costner's character in "Waterworld." As a futuristic mutant, Costner plays "the Mariner," who actually has webbed feet and gills behind his ears.

The Mariner is the protagonist in "Waterworld," which has been highly publicized as the most expensive movie ever made ($175 million in production costs — and you can tack on another $30 million for advertising).

But, surprisingly, he's not the most appealing movie hero we've seen. The Mariner is a surly loner, an outcast about whom it is said, "There are none of his kind." His origins are never explained, but it's clear that the Mariner doesn't like humans. And his treatment of Helen and Enola, a woman and her "adopted" little girl who are forced to accompany him, is mean-spirited, nasty and misogynistic. (They are played respectively by Jeanne Tripplehorn, of "The Firm," and the wonderful child actress Tina Majorino, of "Andre" and "Corrina, Corrina.")

Eventually, the Mariner will redeem himself and become a bit more warm and fuzzy (even while he's taking out bad guys by the dozens), but throughout the first half of the film the character is more than a bit unsettling. In fact, he's downright hateful. (Errol Flynn, whose cinematic heroics are evoked here, is no doubt spinning in his grave.)

Like much of "Waterworld's" look, the Mariner is obviously inspired by the character played by Mel Gibson in "Mad Max" and its sequels, "The Road Warrior" and "Mad Max Beyond Thunder-dome." In those films, the burned-out, post-apocalyptic future was in the hands of hapless, rag-tag innocents terrorized by evil mutant bikers who drove rusted, jerry-built vehicles. And water and fuel were the rare commodities everyone was after.

In "Waterworld," the polar ice caps have melted and for a few hundred years the planet has been almost entirely one big ocean. Everyone talks about and dreams of a "mythical" place where there is "dry land," and when we meet the Mariner he is trolling for a bottle of dirt he will use as barter.

As with the "Mad Max" movies, the future is in the hands of hapless, rag-tag innocents who are terrorized by evil pirates (on jet-skis) and everybody lives in rusted, jerry-built atolls. Drinking water and fuel are the rare commodities everyone is after.

Max was also a self-centered loner but he was never quite so cruel as the Mariner. And it didn't take him quite as long to become a reluctant hero the audience could embrace. But embracing the Mariner isn't easy after he has tried to sell Helen for sex and has thrown Enola, who can't swim, into the water to drown.

Given the antics of the hero, the filmmakers are hard-pressed to make the bad guys look worse — even when a villain strikes a match on the little girl's back and later threatens to skin her. And the filmmakers seem to know this when they have Enola warn the villains about the Mariner: "You can't kill him — he's even meaner than you are."

The search for land is the central plot here, and "the Deacon," a bald, one-eyed pirate (Dennis Hopper), is leading his army of "smokers" (where do they get those dry cigarettes?) in an effort to capture Enola. It seems the youngster has a strange tattoo on her back that is thought to be an indecipherable map pointing to dry land. (Hopper gets all the best lines, of course, as when, late in the film, he says to Costner, "It's the gentleman guppy!")

Eventually, it is Enola who wins over the Mariner, and in one of the film's few quiet, gentle moments, he shows his soft side by teaching her to swim. (More such moments would have helped the film enormously.)

But the emphasis here is clearly on loud, bombastic, stunt-driven episodes, and many of the action sequences are undeniably impressive. (There are also so many gadgets and gizmos at work here that a friend suggested it should have been titled "Rube Goldberg's Waterworld.")

There is, however, the nagging feeling that much of the film's story, dialogue and character development were left on the cutting-room floor. Not that the summer's thrill-seeking movie crowd will care one whit.

"Waterworld" is bound to be a hit. The question is, will it be a "Jurassic Park"-size hit, which would seem to be necessary to put the film into profit mode. Stay tuned.

"Waterworld" is rated PG-13, though it would seem to be in R-rated territory, with an enormous amount of violence (and a very high body count), female nudity and sex, as well as vulgarity and profanity (including Hollywood's favorite cuss word, which usually leads to an R rating).