Let me preface this by saying that I enjoy Waterworld. A lot of people don’t, apparently.
A former coworker once told me that Waterworld isn’t science fiction, it’s fantasy. His reasoning was that the science is so sketchy that it may as well be non-existent. And without science, how is it science fiction? It’s just a bunch of people on boats. He had similar views about a lot of so-called “sci-fi” films, preferring a rigorous approach to the categorization of films. I admired him for that, but I don’t agree. The accuracy of the science is never necessary. Besides, I think if you’re willing to stretch your mind a bit and bend the rules, you can indeed inject a bit of real-world science into at least parts of this film. Maybe. No promises.
In any case, the DVD was shelved in the SCIENCE FICTION section in my local library. So it must be. Never mind the fact they also shelve movies that are obviously fantasy there, too.
Waterworld opens with a narration that covers the set-up: the ice caps have melted, and the world is now a big ball of water. As is pointed out in the ‘Goofs’ section of the film’s IMDb entry, this simply isn’t possible. There’s not enough water in the ice caps to cause that scale of flooding. But you know where there’s plenty of water? The cores of many comets and other celestial bodies. Suppose one of those fell to earth, and the water survived the journey through the atmosphere? It’s implausible, but not impossible (I think). So let’s go with that.
Kevin Costner plays a nameless Mariner, a mutated human with webbed feet and functioning gills. That a human would develop gills through mutation is a bit unlikely, but again, not impossible. Oh, he’s also a selfish asshole. Like, seriously. Total scumbag. At least at the beginning. As you might expect, he does soften as the movie progresses. He learns to care about others and to love. And I don’t care if that’s a spoiler. The movie’s twenty-four years old.
Some of the regular, non-villainous denizens of Waterworld (they actually call it that in-movie) live on atolls made of unpainted metal that, somehow, hasn’t gone all rusty and dissolved in the saltwater (maybe it’s actually metal-colored wood?). I can’t tell if the atolls are supposed to be floating or are anchored somehow to the ocean floor. It seems a little too steady for our hero, accustomed as he is to the rock and roll of the sea, so I’m dying to know the engineering behind it. They live there, they barter there, they die there. What a life.
Meanwhile, the thieving, murderous Smokers live on a big oil tanker, which apparently has facilities for growing food, refining crude oil, making/storing cartridges for their machine guns, and distilling/filtering water, along with living accommodations for a few hundred people. Hey, it’s possible. The Smokers are lead by The Deacon (Dennis Hopper, who is always fun to watch), a man of vision and big promises who wins over his people by tossing loose (and likely stale) cigarettes by the handful to the crowd while driving through the bowels of his ship in an old Cadillac. Which actually makes him a nicer guy than Kevin Costner’s character.
And holy shit, there’s Jack Black.
The story revolves around the quest for Dry Land. People have been living on the water for generations, so how does anyone even know what “land” is? Well, somehow they do, and the map to it is tattooed on a little girl’s back. Which seems kinda cruel, but hey, times are tough in the Waterworld.
With any post-apocalyptic story, I am drawn to the details. How people live, what they’ve built, how they’ve built it. To me, this stuff is gold. But Waterworld doesn’t really satisfy. Everything’s dirty and made of random junk like you’d expect, but some of it is needlessly complicated (Costner’s boat, for example). When survival is your goal, simplicity is your friend, and it can make for some clever feats of ingenuity. In a film where it’s done right, you can tell that the production design team hasn’t put anything on the set they couldn’t explain, like where it came from, how it works, and what the characters in the movie do if it breaks down (see the Mad Max movies). In Waterworld, they haven’t given any of it much thought, opting for a certain visual style rather than a pedantic realism. Which is fine. You don’t need that level of attention to make an entertaining film, but I miss it when it’s not there.
And besides, if I’m busy drooling over the production design, I’ll more easily overlook glaring plot holes, like this one: the Mariner is certain Enola, the little girl, has seen Dry Land because she’s drawn a tree, and only someone who’s been on Dry Land has ever seen a tree, so Dry Land must, therefore, exist. But there’s a freakin’ tree growing in the atoll where she was living. He saw it while he was sailing in. I guess he forgot?
Also, the guy has a freakin’ car battery on his boat. How?
But like I said, I enjoy Waterworld. It’s a fun action flick, and when I look past the lack of scientific and logical rigor, I really do like how the film looks, the sets and costumes and what-not. Is it science fiction? Well, it does ask the big, important question: “what if?”
As in, “what if the world was covered in water?” Something like that is all a sci-fi story needs, as far as I’m concerned.
See you next time.