Waterworld (Blu-ray) [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray ALL - United Kingdom - Arrow Films
Review written by and copyright: Paul Lewis (8th February 2019).
The Film

Waterworld (Kevin Reynolds, 1995)

In a future world, where the polar ice caps have melted and almost the entire globe is beneath sea level, the Mariner (Kevin Costner) wanders on his trimaran, which converts from a slow-moving trawler to a masted racing ship, allowing him to outmanoeuvre the ruthless ‘Smokers’ – wandering hoodlums who ride on jetskis powered by the last remnant’s of civilisation’s ‘go juice’ (petroleum). The Smokers are commanded by Deacon (Dennis Hopper), a despot who rules over a community of scavengers that inhabits the Exxon Valdez, now a hulking wreck referred to as ‘The ‘Dez’. The Deacon has earnt his name through his habit of delivering curious sermons to his assembled ‘flock’.

When the Mariner arrives at an atoll, a huge floating fortress made of scraps of metal and wood, he attempts to trade some dirt – an extremely rare commodity in Waterworld – for a volume of ‘chits’. The dirt in his possession leads some of the atoll’s inhabitants to believe that the Mariner has come from Dryland – a mythical place where one can walk upon solid earth. However, after one of the inhabitants of the atoll notices that the Mariner has gills behind his ears, the community round on him, call him a ‘Muto’ and place him in a cage with the intention of killing him. A woman, Helen (Jeanne Tripplehorn), attempts to stave off the execution of the Mariner, but her appeals fall on deaf ears.

Helen’s charge is Enola (Tina Majorino), an orphaned young girl who arrived at the atoll as a baby on a raft that had been set adrift. On her back, Enola carries a tattoo that some people believe to contain a clue that will lead them to Dryland. When Smokers attack the fort, using ramps to enter the atoll itself, hell is let loose; during the fracas and with Helen’s, the Mariner manages to escape from his cage. Helen asks the Mariner to help her and Enola escape; the Mariner agrees, and the trio board the Mariner’s trimaran. However, as they escape the atoll, the Mariner causes an incident which leads the Deacon to lose an eye.

The Deacon now pursues a vendetta against the Mariner; the Deacon also wants to get his hands on Enola, believing the myth that Enola’s tattoo holds the secret to the location of Dryland. Meanwhile, the Mariner must set aside his differences with Helen and Enola, who insist that he help them find Dryland too.

When its initial $100 million budget ballooned to $172 million, largely thanks to the huge and complex floating atoll set, Waterworld came to be seen as a symbol of Hollyweird excess comparable to Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate (1980). However, the truth is that, just like Heaven’s Gate, Waterworld is far from a ‘bad’ film – though, admittedly, the extended cut shows just how negatively studio interference impacted on the finished picture. The extended cut – specifically, the ‘Ulysses’ cut, which incorporates the extra footage from the TV cut whilst also retaining the nudity, violence and language from the theatrical version – is a much more coherent piece of work and, to be fair, never truly outstays its welcome. Of course, after the public drubbing of Waterworld Hollyweird excess would continue to exist and would in fact escalate with late-1990s blockbusters (1997’s Titanic and 1998’s Armageddon, for example) which were increasingly expensive to produce. The perception that Kevin Reynolds, whose relationship with Kevin Costner began with Fandango in 1985 and continued through popular pictures such as Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1990), had allowed the production to spiral out of control harmed Reynolds’ career and his relationship with Costner, Reynolds friend and the producer of Waterworld. Subsequent to Waterworld, Reynolds’ next picture was a much more low-key affair: the inner-city crime picture One Eight Seven (1997).

Waterworld opens with the Universal logo, the camera zooming in to show the melting of the polar ice caps and rising sea levels which swallow the land. (A male voiceover declares, ‘The future. The polar ice caps have melted, covering the Earth with water. Those who have survived have adapted to a new world’.) Waterworld makes a valiant attempt to build a future post-apocaylptic world, making use of language as much as production design to do so; thus, the language of the wandering Drifters is PortuGreek (a hybrid of Portuguese and Greek); petroleum is referred to as ‘go-juice’; pure drinking water, a valuable commodity, is named ‘hydro’; the hulk of the Exxon Valdez that Deacon commands is referred to as ‘The ‘Dez’; the Mariner is labelled as a ‘Muto’ thanks to the gills which have appeared behind his ears (which are presumably the product of adaption over several generations); and a mythology has built up around the notion of ‘Dryland’, an oasis of earth and fauna in the desert of water that the characters inhabit.

Like many examples of post-apocalyptic fiction of the 1980s and 1990s, Waterworld has an ecological subtext, the use of fossil fuels having caused ice caps to melt and sea levels to rise, leading to a return to pre-civilisation: as Einstein said, ‘I do now know with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones’. However, the film’s bad guys, led by Deacon, ride around on jet-skis, the Exxon Valdez containing an ever-dwindling supply of ‘go-juice’; the connection between Waterworld’s villains and the use of fossil fuels is reinforced by the nickname Deacon’s goons are given, ‘Smokers’. In this new world, again as in many examples of post-apocalyptic fiction, the weak are preyed on by the strong: Deacon’s Smokers travel from atoll to atoll, using their sheer numbers and symbols of the old world (jetskis and guns) to pillage smaller communities. At the start of the film, the Mariner meets another Drifter; according to ‘the code’, when two Drifters meet, they must offer one another something in exchange. ‘I give you this one for free’, the other Drifter tells the Mariner. ‘Nothing’s free in Waterworld’, the Mariner responds gnomically, his assertion setting the tone for the film’s subsequent depiction of the world created within the narrative.

Reviewing the film upon its initial release, Janet Maslin suggested that Waterworld’s ‘crude’ storytelling took ‘a back seat to its enthusiasm for post-apocalyptic rust and rubble” (Maslin, 1995). Admittedly, the story is a hodgepodge of elements from popular cinema (especially George Miller’s The Road Warrior, 1981), mythology and the Bible: notably, the story of Enola, abandoned by her parents and set adrift, is reminiscent of the story of Moses in the bulrushes; and the manner in which the world’s surface has been covered with water has obvious echoes of the Great Deluge. After the Mariner takes Helen to the ocean floor in a jerry-rigged diving bell, showing her the empty cities there (including the surreal image of a submarine that has buried itself in the city streets), he tells another survivor that ‘The world wasn’t created in a deluge: it was covered by it’. ‘That’s blasphemy’, the survivor responds. ‘No, it’s true’, Helen insists, telling the survivor of her journey to the sea bed.

The narrative of Waterworld makes strong use of the paradigms of the Western: in particular, the film references the gunslinger plot that is probably best exemplified by George Stevens’ Shane (1953, from the novel by Jack Schaefer). In Shane, Shane (Alan Ladd) rides out of the wilderness into a town that is oppressed by a group of gunslingers, led by Jack Wilson (Jack Palance) working for a greedy and ruthless landowner. Taking a place with a family (Van Heflin, Jean Arthur and young Joey Starrett), Shane eventually takes up arms and uses his skills as a gunslinger to rid the town of Wilson and his hoods, but at the end of the picture Shane rides away from the family – despite Joey’s cries for him to return – as he knows that now it has been rid of violence, his continuing presence will taint it. Likewise, in Waterworld the Mariner drifts into the atoll where, after it is attacked by Deacon’s Smokers, he forms a makeshift family unit with Helen and Enola (the latter the film’s stand-in for Shane’s Joey). The Mariner somewhat reluctantly helps rid the territory of the threat posed by Deacon and his gang of Smokers, eventually helping Helen and Enola to find Dryland. However, at the end of the picture, despite pleas for him to stay, the Mariner leaves Dryland (and Helen and Enola) and, like Shane before him, returns to the wilderness, aware that he doesn’t belong in the community and embracing his status as an outsider. In fact, Waterworld opens with what might be an intentional homage to the extended version of Sergio Leone’s Continental Western Giu a testa (Duck, You Sucker, 1971). The Leone film (or rather, its longer cut) opens with a scene in which Juan (Rod Steiger), one of the film’s protagonists, is shown pissing on an anthill. Likewise, Waterworld opens with the Mariner urinating into a container, the camera beginning on the container and panning up the Mariner’s body (from the rear). The Mariner then empties this container into a machine on his trimaran that purifies water. (Though as he tells Helen later in the picture, this device can only purify urine; it doesn’t have the same effect on seawater because ‘salt’s harder on the filters’.)

The film has some problems in its approach to the character of the Mariner: he’s stocially heroic until he flees from the atoll with Helen and Enola, but after that he behaves cruelly to the two female characters, suggesting that he is willing to throw Enola over the side of the trimaran (‘It’s best that one of you die now than both of you die slow’, he reasons to Helen, telling her that their meagre supply of ‘hydro’ will eventually run out). The Mariner is utterly self-sufficient, turning down Helen’s offer of sex in exchange for survival (‘You got nothing I need’) and asserting, in response to her suggestion that he has been alone too long, that ‘I’m not alone. I’ve got this boat for a friend. It don’t lie to me, don’t cut my throat when I’m asleep. Gives me a place to be’. Later, Helen’s friend Gregor (Michael Jeter) tells Helen not to ‘blame’ the Mariner: ‘Survival is all he knows. That’s why someday there will be more like him; probably so few of us’. The Mariner eventually reaches a turning point when he teaches Enola how to swim. In the extended cut, these changes of direction for the Mariner’s character are more rounded. The character is intentionally mercurial, but this sometimes makes him difficult to identify with. Essentially, the film is about the moral education of a rogue.

The extended cut isn’t quite the revelation that Waterworld’s more rabid fans would have you believe it to be, but it is a much stronger picture nevertheless. Even in the extended cut, however, some plot elements remain frustratingly underdeveloped: for example, whilst the Mariner, Helen and Enola are adrift and running out of food, the Mariner climbs into the water and uses himself as bait for a huge sea creature which swallows the Mariner whole; the Mariner escapes by blasting a hole in the creature from the inside out, and the film cuts to a scene in which the Mariner is cooking meat from this creature for himself, Helen and Enola. The intriguing notion of new forms of marine life is ignored for the rest of the film’s running time – including a sequence in which the Mariner takes Helen to the bottom of the sea in a makeshift diving bell, revealing to her the now-ruined cities that lay on the ocean floor.


Presented in the film’s intended aspect ratio of 1.85:1, the 1080p presentation uses the AVC codec. The film’s theatrical cut (running 135:06) is included on DISC ONE (filling 35.5Gb of space on the dual-layered disc); the TV cut (176:01) is included on DISC TWO (filling 44.7Gb of space on a dual-layered disc); and the ‘Ulysses cut’ (177:12) is on DISC THREE (filling 44.9Gb of space on a dual-layered disc). The ‘Ulysses cut’ is essentially a formalised ‘fan edit’, having its origins within the fan community – where the TV cut, which extended many of the film’s expositional scenes but omitted some of the language and nudity seen in the theatrical cut, was married with the footage unique to the theatrical cut (including some violence, brief nudity and stronger language). The resultant ‘Ulysses cut’ arguably makes the TV cut redundant, and though the theatrical cut has a better sense of pace and momentum, the ‘Ulysses cut’ fleshes out some aspects of the narrative that always felt very restricted within the theatrical cut.

Shot in colour and on 35mm stock, Waterworld looks extremely handsome on this new Blu-ray release. The film was lovingly shot and features lots of shallow depth of field even within brightly-lit outdoor scenes (presumably achieved through the use of neutral density filters). The presentation contains a very pleasing sense of depth with some superb fine detail on display. Textures within the photography are carried excellently, and colours are bold and consistent too (for example, the deep blue of the sea). Skintones are naturalistic and the level of detail is such that textures in the actors’ skin have an almost three-dimensional effect. Contrast is well-defined, with strong and rich midtones alongside subtle gradation into the toe and a balanced shoulder, given that much of the exterior sequences were shot under harsh sunlight. Black are deep and rich. The presentation retains the structure of 35mm film and is carried via a strong encode to disc, resulting in a pleasingly filmlike presentation. It’s a superb presentation.

Some full-sized screen grabs are included at the bottom of this review. Please click to enlarge them.


Audio is provided via the option of a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track and a DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 stereo track, with optional English subtitles for the Hard of Hearing. (Though the bulk of the film’s dialogue is in English, the snatches of PortuGreek dialogue are accompanied by burn-in English subtitles.) Both audio tracks are clear and consistent, with excellent range, bass during the action sequences being carried particularly effectively. The 5.1 track has some added sound separation but the stereo track has plenty of ‘oomph’ also.


Disc contents are as follows:
* The film (theatrical version) (135:06)
- - ‘Maelstrom: The Odyssey of Waterworld’ (102:22)
. This feature-length documentary looks at the genesis, production and reception of Waterworld. Writer Peter Rader talks about the origins of Waterworld in his plan to make a low-budget ‘Mad Max rip off’. Justin Humphreys, a freelance writer about film who is here billed as a ‘film historian’, discusses the paradigms of post-apocalyptic pictures and dystopic sci-fi. Some of the differences between the finished film and Rader’s original drafts of the script are examined. Producer Charles Gordon and director Kevin Reynolds reflect on how they came to be involved with the project, and they talk about Costner’s role in the production. Dean Semler discusses the photography on the film and the design and building of the trimaran and the atoll set are discussed, including comments from production designer Dennis Gassner. The process of casting the picture is considered, and the participants reflect on the actors’ contributions to the picture. The filming of the picture and the effects are examined in depth, as is the critical reaction to the film. Other interviewees include second assistant director Robert Huberman, production assistant David Bernstein and special effects co-ordinator Eric Allard. Interspersed among the new interviews are some archival interviews – notably with Costner and Tripplehorn.

- ‘Dances with Waves’ (9:20)
. This archival EPK-style featurette looks at the production of the film and features some behind the scenes footage and interviews with the principal cast and crew.

- ‘Global Warnings’ (22:21)
. Film critic Glenn Kenny discusses the evolution of films focusing on apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic scenarios, beginning with William Cameron Menzies’ Things to Come (1936). Kenny considered 1950s and 1960s pictures of this ilk, including George Pal’s The Time Machine (1960) and The Day the Earth Caught Fire (Val Guest, 1961). Kenny examines how this subgenre evolved in the 1970s with films such as ZPG (Michael Campus, 1972) and Silent Running (Douglas Trumbull, 1972).

- Image Galleries: Concept Art (1:03); Production Stills (1:13); Behind the Scenes – Hawaii (0:35); Behind the Scenes – Los Angeles (0:23); Miniatures and Visual Effects (0:45); Promotional Gallery (0:36)

- Trailers: Teaser (2:00); Trailer (2:15); TV Spots (9:06)

* The film (TV cut) (176:01)

* The film (‘Ulysses’ cut) (177:12)


The negativity surrounding Waterworld upon its original release didn’t dissuade Costner from acting and directing another post-apocalyptic picture, The Postman, merely two years later. If anything, The Postman was subjected to even more derision, and where The Postman arguably deserved the critical drubbing it received, Waterworld was a better picture than one might have believed it to be; this isn’t to say it’s anything approaching a classic, but it’s certainly on a par with a number of other 1990s blockbusters that received much better notices in the press. In the years since its original release, Waterworld has acquired a fairly strong cult following, something which led to the creation of the ‘Ulysses’ cut – originally a fan edit but given a formal lease of life on Arrow’s new Blu-ray release – which is a much stronger piece of work than the theatrical cut, offering a more rounded perspective on some of the more elliptical narrative events within the narrative.

Arrow’s new Blu-ray release of Waterworld is pretty much definitive, containing three cuts of the film (though arguably there is a negligible difference between the TV cut and the ‘Ulysses’ edit, completists will be happy that both are included alongside the theatrical cut). Excellent presentations of all three edits are accompanied by some excellent contextual material: though new comments from some of the lead members of the cast are noticeably absent, the feature length documentary included on disc one is particularly superb, covering the genesis, production and reception of Waterworld in an incredible amount of detail.

Maslin, Janet, 1995: ‘An Aquatic Armageddon with Lots of Toys’. New York Times (28 July, 1995)

Please click to enlarge:


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