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How Waterworld Came to Define Modern Film Journalism

There was a time long ago when we had to get news about forthcoming movies from magazines and newspapers. This was a time before the likes of Ain’t it Cool News and Dark Horizons, with the internet mainly consisting of message boards discussing the few sci-fi TV shows that were worth watching way back when. Things are very tightly controlled now, and information about troubled productions that go over budget and over schedule will not leak out if the studio doesn’t want it to. Hard lessons have been learned along the way, and bad production buzz can cloud the public perception of a film before it had even been completed, and subsequently doom its box office chances. I learned a lot about the media and how studios would eventually combat bad buzz by following the production of a certain movie named Waterworld.

By the time the bad buzz about Waterworld started to grow, the infamous Hollywood Turkey or Bomb was nothing new. Heavens Gate (1980)—Michael Cimino’s ill fated epic western—was perhaps the first to gain notoriety, and Ishtar (1987) followed this later in the ’80s. Some years later The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990) and Hudson Hawk (1991) was seen as the death of Bruce Willis’ career with many highlighting his personal stake in what was his pet project with Hawk. Then in 1993 Arnold Schwarzenegger’s deeply flawed but fun Last Action Hero was criticised more for overspending and its stars ego than its actual quality. Last Action Hero actually ended up making a profit of over 20 million when all was said and done, but in the eyes of the world it was a failure thanks to the negative reporting on the film.

When word started to circulate in the entertainment press that Waterworld was running seriously over budget, the reports were indicating that this was the most expensive film of all time at $150 million (it’s now estimated at around $175 million). Word was that the expansive water-based atoll set used at the opening had sunk several times, and bad weather was putting the Hawaii based production seriously behind schedule. At this point, Kevin Costner—who was once a box office golden boy thanks to Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991) and The Bodyguard (1992)—had just suffered from two underperformers with A Perfect World (1993) and Wyatt Earp (1994), both of which failed to perform to expectations. It was indicated in a lot of the reviews for A Perfect World where critics mentioned Costner’s middle-aged gut rather than the film, that knives were being sharpened, and Waterworld was to be the end of Costner’s career no matter how good the finished film was.

Kevin Costner as the Mariner on his boat on endless sea in Waterworld

A lot of the commentary turned downright mean-spirited in a way that would even give Perez Hilton pause. The bad buzz started to get personal: reports of Costner having an affair on set, of his primadonna behaviour leading to child co-star Tina Majorino being stung by jellyfish amongst others. The terms “Fishtar” and “Kevin’s Gate” were used to label the film, so certain were the press that it was a vain folly. When official pictures were published in magazines and newspapers, I remember clearly one publication actually criticising Costner’s physique and receding hairline over any kind of appreciation of costume or production design. This was in early 1995, and it was a weird time as there was no Twitter or other social media, and it wouldn’t be for another fifteen plus years until this kind of mean-spirited commentary became the norm.

When I first saw the trailer for Waterworld in the spring of ’95, it really captured my imagination. Here was a riff on Mad Max again when there hadn’t been one of those for a while, and they had spent some serious money on it. It looked epic and it looked like all the money was on screen. It didn’t look like the typical Kevin Costner movie, more a Van Damme movie with a huge budget. That summer had already been largely a bust with Judge Dredd, Batman Forever and Congo all disappointing to some degree, so by the time Waterworld emerged I was more than ready.

Back then when I was a teenager I loved Waterworld. It did everything I wanted it to do, it provided thrills and action, pathos and heart. I loved the sets, I loved the world-building, and I loved the story and, after Speed (1994), Dennis Hopper was back playing a great villain. I was fairly easily pleased back then so Waterworld’s flaws wouldn’t become apparent for some years—and have mostly to do with scientific plausibility—but even now I actually quite enjoy revisiting the movie every couple of years. Special mention must also go to James Newton Howard’s score which was one of the first I bought on CD—it manages to mix the bombastic with the lush and evocative. Now we get to the crucial part because I remember that Waterworld actually went to number one at the box office, and stayed there for more than one week. To some, it didn’t matter, and Waterworld still became synonymous with the Hollywood turkey. We would see the same scenario play out with Titanic (1997) a couple of years later where James Cameron was heavily criticised whilst the film was in production, and look how that turned out…

By the end of 1995 Waterworld was actually in profit, by 88 million dollars, hardly a box office disaster. 25 years on and it’s a curious beast; it still provides the thrills and spills and director Kevin Reynolds is second only to Steven Spielberg in terms of directing an action scene. The fairly non-cynical nature of the film (apart from being a world where, y’know humanity has ruined it) hasn’t aged particularly well, and this would likely be a much meaner and violent film if made now. The film has enough fans for there to have been a recent Blu-Ray release of the extended three-hour cut that previously only appeared on TV. This version is a mixed blessing; it actually enriches the world and ties up a lot of different holes in terms of characters and locations, but it feels much more of a slog than the theatrical cut. I think the perfect version of the film lies somewhere between the two at around two and a half hours. The final version is something that Kevin Costner and director Kevin Reynolds fell out over at the end of production, with the theatrical cut being the preferred version of its lead actor rather than its director who had walked off by the end.

Dennis Hopper as the villainous one eyed Deacon on his ship in Waterworld

Waterworld may not be thought of as a classic of the mid-’90s and yet its legacy is still felt today. The way in which film production, budgets, and box office was reported on changed forever in its wake. It’s curious as the actual facts and figures do not support the film’s status as a bomb at all, and it is constantly referred to as one when predicting doom for other troubled productions today. It is almost as if the film press masses decreed it to be so, and so it was for all time. From the proliferation of the internet onwards, there was a renewed focus on reporting on box office and troubled productions in a way there simply hadn’t been before. The film fan now seems to check the weekend box office on a Monday the way they might with football scores.

Another example of this kind of negativity is the 2003 film adaptation of Daredevil. Regardless of current critical opinion, when that came out it was actually number one at the box office for a good three weeks, and yet because it was Ben Affleck’s time, it is consistently referred to as a bomb when it made a profit of over 100 million dollars. A big part of this is the way in which reporting of this kind of thing went after Waterworld.  In the last ten years I have read more reviews criticising marketing campaigns and target demographics over the quality of the actual film than I would like. Recent examples of this were John Carter (2012), The Lone Ranger (2013) and Enders Game (2013). Actual statistics and overall quality of finished films seem to be pushed aside in favour of bomb threatening tweets and clickbait. Sometimes the bad buzz is warranted, but sometimes a film journalists critique of the film seems to be based on the title, or certain scenes too dark for a PG or most puzzlingly, the age of the source material. Good points well made will always be just that, but things have clearly changed when it comes time to assess the quality of a finished product.

Waterworld was an attempt at something (kind of) original in a summer crowded with sequels and existing comic book properties. The time when studios would gamble that sort of money on original screenplays is now long gone. That’s the legacy that Waterworld deserves rather than being remembered as a punchline; rather as one of the last gasps of big-budget originality led by a movie star, and perhaps a lesson in lazy journalism.

Christopher Holt

Written by Christopher Holt

Christopher Holt currently fights hypocrisy and evil on the fringes of reality. He has spent twenty years writing a novel about this which will do nothing less than change the world...when it's finished.

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