I suppose you know you're in trouble when you have to start a movie review by saying, "Well, it really isn't that bad." But there's no other way to introduce 'Waterworld,' a film that became so notorious months before its release that it seemed doomed to failure before even a foot of film unspooled in theaters. Dubbed a boondoggle by the press as its budget rapidly escalated (reported at nearly $200 million by the time production wrapped) and as on-set tensions flared between star Kevin Costner and director Kevin Reynolds, it quickly became clear that unless 'Waterworld' became one of the biggest hits in the history of cinema, it was going to lose money. And that, of course, is exactly what happened. Truth be told, though, 'Waterworld' was not a flop. Despite taking a heavy drubbing by critics, it earned decent returns worldwide, and even inspired a stunt show at the Universal Studios theme parks. Okay, so maybe this is no 'Jurassic Park,' but 'Waterworld' is a bit better than its reputation suggests, and if nothing else, deserves a better hand than it has been dealt.
The story goes like this: sometime in the future, the Earth's ice caps have melted and almost all of the planet is submerged under water. Struggling for survival, humans have formed their own small societies -- some civilized, some more savage -- that barter for food, supplies and shelter. Costner stars as the Mariner, one of a race of more evolved humans that have grown gills and can breathe for longer periods of time under water. Though a drifter with little idealism, the Mariner will come to crusade against Deacon (Dennis Hopper) over a local peasant mother (Jeanne Tripplehorn) whose young daughter Enola (Tina Majorino) holds the key to a mythical place called "Dryland." Mariner must make a choice — continue to rob and scourge, or defeat Deacon for the very future of mankind.
'Waterworld' falls into the grand tradition of the post-apocalyptic thriller, which can range from the visionary (the Mad Max films) to the dreadful (anything with Dolph Lundgren in it). 'Waterworld' comes up somewhere in between, due both to the rather unpleasant future world it imagines and its casting. To me, Costner was the wrong choice for the Mariner and nowhere as cool as Mel Gibson once was in his heyday. He also seems tired, as if the weight of the production and the behind-the-scenes squabbling eventually took its toll. Hopper has always been too hammy when he doesn't have a director that reins him in, which Reynolds doesn't seem to even try to do. Tripplehorn and the talented little Majorino fare much better, but they aren't enough to save the film from Costner's stoic blandness and Hopper's scenery chewing.
The look of the film is also a liability. Quite frankly, the waterworld depicted in the movie is an ugly looking future, and the production design — while obviously expensive -- just don't excite the senses. There is nothing as imaginative here as seen in the Mad Max films, or even a Resident Evil movie. And looking at all that blue water for 136-minutes gets rather monotonous — I soon tuned out of the movie, to the point where I just didn't much care what happened to the Mariner and all these other faceless folks.
Yet parts of 'Waterworld' are still quite enjoyable. It's easy to see why the film became a stunt show at Universal -- all manner of boats, floatation devices and jet skiers whiz by, splashing water all over the place and screaming, "I will get you, Mariner!" It plays just like a theme park ride, and on that level, 'Waterworld' is kinda fun. And while the film may not have anything new to say, it's also by no means a catastrophe. If you like post-apocalyptic action films, then it is a world worth visiting at least once.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Universal Studios Home Entertainment brings 'Waterworld' to Blu-ray as a two-disc combo, part of the studio's 100th Anniversary label. Sitting on opposite panels, one is a Region Free, BD50 disc while the other is a DVD-9 copy of the 176-minute extended version. With a sleek and shiny slipcover that opens up on the front, the blue eco-lite packaging includes a pamphlet with a code for a Digital Copy download. Once the player, viewers are greeted by the standard main menu options along the left side of the screen with full-motion clips and music.
'Waterworld' splashes unto Blu-ray with a strong and generally satisfying 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode, but not likely an improvement over its VC-1 counterpart. Contrast runs intentionally hotter than normal, giving Dean Semler's sun-drenched photography a vividly brilliant appeal that expresses the future's blistering climate. Thankfully, this doesn't affect the rest of the high-def transfer as the 1.85:1 image appears fairly detailed. Not quite as sharp as other movies from the same period, but good nonetheless. Flesh tones are noticeable tan and orangey, which is appropriate to the weather, but close-ups reveal plenty of lifelike texture. Black levels are spot-on, with excellent shadow delineation. There isn't a wealth of colors to be seen, which is also deliberate, but the few we do see are cleanly rendered and accurate.
The sci-fi swashbuckler also lands with a slightly better DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack. It's not a very significant upgrade, but this lossless mix does fill in the room with a bit more robust and energetic feel.
Rear activity carries a great variety of atmospherics which are discrete and enveloping. Directionality is excellent with seamless panning and movement across all the channels. The front soundstage is wide and engaging for the most part, but some of the action sequences seem to drown out the vocals and certain pieces of dialogue are difficult to make out. Dynamic range is good for the most part, but those same segments of explosions and gunfire come off rather bright and even a tad distorted in the upper ranges. Thankfully, James Newton Howard's memorable score doesn't suffer greatly from this, spreading across all the channels with admirable clarity. The low-end can be rather potent in some spots, but it seems to come with quite a bit of noise attached as well.
Like previous releases, this is yet another bare-bones package.
At one point considered the most expensive production ever, 'Waterworld' failed to make up for its costs at the box office, despite starring Kevin Costner and Dennis Hopper. It has since grown into a cult favorite for many who appreciate the practical visual effects and find something redeemable within the sci-fi swashbuckling tale about surviving on an Earth covered in water. The movie floats onto Blu-ray with good picture quality, slightly better audio, but mostly devoid of special features, except a DVD copy of the extended version. Those wanting this combo deal will be satisfied with the purchase price.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.