We deserve Waterworld.
The opening shot is the first note. The base upon which every frame of film to follow will work to build up or tear down. You’re probably recalling a few now. The Star Destroyer gaining on Princess Leia. The fade from black into the smoke whipped parlor of Vito Corleone.
Kevin Costner pees into half of a plastic bottle then drinks it.
Waterworld is meant to be in the same vein as the Mad Max series; a hard juxtaposition of the best of humanity peeking through when set against the worst of circumstances. It’s separating the water from the pee as it were. Screenwriter David Twohy cited The Road Warrior as a major inspiration; even going as far to employ the same director of photography, Dean Semlar. Even without knowing the intended similarities, when you watch Waterworld with even a passing knowledge of any of the Mad Max films it’s impossible not to notice the influence. Inspiration, however, is where the bridge between the two films end.
First, a brief refresher of max's first appearance in the road warrior
Even without the preceding film’s recap and narration which opens Mad Max 2, the audience is presented with all the expository information it needs. The setting is some ravaged, lawless future. Our protagonist is a fast-acting survivalist that works in his own best interest. Everyone is fighting, to the death if necessary, for basic supplies and gasoline. Not a word spoken, all crystal clear.
The Mariner pees into a bottle and drinks it.
It’s supposed to be a bold bravado move; things are so desperate in this flooded future that a man is forced to distill his own urine to survive, but visually it doesn’t really achieve that affect. The audience has to make the leap themselves because the desperation of the situation is not fully conveyed. IE that our main character is out of water, or even the general sense of "I must drink my urine to survive." When he drinks, there's not even a grimace or a bit of hesitation on the part of the Mariner to show that the situation is, in fact, dire or even generally unpleasant. When Max is chased by a slew of leather-clad punks on ATVs there is no room for interpretation or leaps for the audience to make: the gravity of the situation is very clear. Max needs to outmaneuver or take out these people or he will die. It's quick, it's simple, and it's conveniently not gross. Furthermore, on the water purification front, many might make the same logical leap I did and ask, “If that device is sophisticated enough to purify urine, then surely it is good enough to desalinate the vast ocean around him?”
That brings us to the ocean. Logistically, it is certainly a dire setting to survive in, but that’s extraordinarily hard to convey visually. This is especially true when the stretch of seas you have selected are in the picturesque vacation destination of Hawaii. It’s a symbol as basic as an arrow sign; water equals life. We are mostly made of it. We need it to survive. We welcome it into our homes with faucets, shower heads and Soda Streams. In order to invert that image, steps need to be taken. Perhaps focus on the vast isolation the setting would invoke, or possibly choose to shoot on a day with rough tides to show the potential pitfalls of the situation. No. Immediately, we’re shown a display of how our main character might survive this environment. Set course for dystopia, friends.
Now, this whole dive into Waterworld’s faults reads poorly if you, like Kevin Costner, consider it to be a fun adventure film for the whole family. This is an understandable take if you consider its Princess Bride-Esque score. I would counter with a reminder that this is a film with:
-A protagonist drinking their own urine
-A horrible mud pit full of corpses
-An attempt to drown the protagonist in the aforementioned pit of corpses
-Graphic eyeball surgery
-A character whom reluctantly accepts an adult for intercourse because they are refused a child
-The threatened mutilation of a child
-An old man audibly welcoming the sweet relief of death
It’s not earth shattering to address Waterworld’s failings. People have been doing it for twenty years. The film isn’t without its redeeming qualities. Some of the set pieces are well done, the aesthetic is consistent, and a few of the action scenes are impressive. The real unsettling thing about Waterworld even all these years later is that it’s a film with an incredible amount of money and effort behind it without any clear purpose. Like a vast, empty ocean, it seems to ripple on and eventually dissipate. A bit of nudge in any direction would have made all the difference.
It needed a filter to make it drinkable.