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Nice effects don't save Waterworld from being a flop


Directed by Kevin Reynolds.

Written by Peter Rader and David Twohy.

Starring Kevin Costner, Dennis Hopper, Jeanne Tripplehorn, and Tina Majorino.

Sony Cheri.

By Scott Deskin

For films with overblown budgets more impressive than their special effects, Waterworld is an unqualified success. The film's budget (which swelled to the neighborhood of $200 million) got more press than the causes of the inflation: cast members languishing in substandard housing while star Kevin Costner leased a private beach house for $1,200 a night; the ruined friendship between Costner and director Kevin Reynolds (Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves); and, of course, the unforgiving attitude of Mother Nature toward the production.

If one looks past all the hype and egos surrounding the project, Waterworld isn't so bad. Essentially an alternate version (i.e., ripoff) of the post-apocalyptic world in George Miller's epic The Road Warrior, Waterworld generates a fair amount of rough-and-tumble excitement when its gets going.

In the future, a narrator ominously tells the audience, the polar ice caps have melted, submerging the continents as we know them. A character known only as the Mariner (Costner) has adapted to this new world, sailing around on a sunbaked, gizmo-enhanced trimaran and generally keeping to himself. He's also no boy scout: In an early sequence he leaves a sailor defenseless to a band of marauding "Smokers" on jet skis, while he makes his escape. Robin Hood, eat your heart out.

When the Mariner arrives at an atoll trading post, he makes some deals by exchanging his dirt for goods. (In Waterworld, dirt - a symbol of the elusive "Dryland" - is as valuable as gold.) But when the locals learn that this stranger isn't human, but rather a mutant with gills and webbed feet, the xenophobes decide to execute him on site for the good of mankind. Their plans are derailed, however, when the Smokers - led by a bald, wisecracking psycho named The Deacon (played by Dennis Hopper, of course) - attack the city-at-sea.

The key of the whole story, and the reason for the Smokers' siege, is a tattoo, in the shape of a map leading to Dryland, on the back of a little girl (Tina Majorino). Her surrogate mother (Jeanne Tripplehorn) saves the Mariner from being dragged down with the atoll, in exchange for a one-way ticket to Dryland (he has dirt, so he's been there, right?). The rest of the film is devoted to the Mariner's misanthropic tendencies being subdued by his two annoying female companions and the Smokers giving chase to the trio.

To be fair, Waterworld gets most of the effects across nicely: The trimaran sure looks neat, and the semi-comic actions of the Smokers on jet skis flying off ramps during the attack on the atoll had me rolling in the aisles. But every aspect of this production was handled much better (and for a lot less money) in The Road Warrior. Hopper appropriately goes over the top as the main villain, but Tripplehorn's character is unnecessary and Majorino is cloyingly cute to the point of nausea. Costner, as the strong, silent hero, is merely adequate.

In short, Waterworld (already a month in general release) looks like a well-made but expensive flop. Although the special effects look nice on the big screen, the film probably doesn't lose much of it's campy grandeur on video. Case in point: The film's grandiose musical score gives way to Henry Mancini's "Peter Gunn" theme during a visual tour of the Smokers' industrial facility. A little more humor like that could have made this film something more than the standard action-movie retread it is.