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Defending the Unloved: WATERWORLD

Every year plenty of movies come out that are quickly dismissed as not being worth of your attention, but sometimes all a movie needs to succeed is a second chance. In “Defending the Unloved” we look at some movies that were critically panned, but are a lot better than they were given credit for. Without further ado, we begin:


Rotten Tomatoes

Critics Score – 42%
Audience Score – 43%

There is the nagging feeling that much of the film’s story, dialogue, and character development were left on the cutting-room floor.”

The story has a sort of grim obsessiveness about it, a calculated determination to be edgy that instead comes off as needlessly heartless and cold.”

The movie, reportedly the most expensive ever made, isn’t all that bad, but for the amount of money spent on it, it should have been better.”

People were really, really pumped for Waterworld before it was released, because for months all anybody heard about the post-apocalyptic film, the one set in a future where the entire planet is (nearly) covered in water, was that it was the most expensive movie ever made to that point, with a final budget reportedly in the 175 million dollar range.

That might sound almost cheap for a big action-packed summer blockbuster now, but this was 1995. Batman Forever, which also came out that year, had a 100 million dollar budget, and the only other movie of the 20th century that cost more was 1997’s Titanic. Waterworld, for many, had to be good, not because it had an interesting story, amazing action sequences, good actors in all the most important roles, and a total commitment to creating an immersive, cinematic world, but it had to be good because of its budget. The most money ever spent making a movie somehow meant it had to be the best movie ever.

What movie could live up to those kinds of expectations? Few if any could ever handle the expectation of being the best film ever, and Waterworld certainly couldn’t and didn’t (and never intended to).

It felt as though every person that saw it, and every review written about it, spoke about it in terms of what they expected it to be based on the money spent making it, not on the actual quality of the film. That was true even of people who liked it. They tempered their positive comments by expressing disappointment it didn’t live up to the impossible.

The burden of that historic budget is how a perfectly good, at times great, escapism popcorn film, one that totally transports you to a place you’ve never been, ended up being so unloved.

Make no mistake, Waterworld does not deserve a spot on any all-time greatest movies list, but it does deserve credit for doing exactly what it set out to do–be entertaining as hell.

Unlike so many other movies set at sea, Waterworld actually looks like it takes place on a large body of water, and not in a studio with a pond (even big budget Titanic suffers from this at points). That budget wasn’t about the dialogue, it was about creating this aesthetically incredible movie, which also had amazing stunts and action pieces.

Look at this scene from early in the film (before the action stuff got even bigger).

At all times you are on a world without land. The massive floating community and the giant Exxon Valdez look like they are really on water, not on a Hollywood lot. That’s really hard, and obviously, expensive, to do, but they pulled it off. This is what Waterworld strove to do, to transport you to that dystopian future, and it does it.

Besides looking so damn amazing, it also had a pretty good cast, with the major roles all played by good actors. The movie’s main character, Kevin Costner‘s nameless, always courageous, ruthless, occasionally cold-blooded, secretly good (giving the movie some actual heart) Mariner, is also an old-school silent ass kicker. Who doesn’t like a classic, competent, strong silent type in their action flicks?

The main cast also has the always great Jeanne Tripplehorn, a very young Tina Majorino (who was one of the best kid actors ever), and Dennis freaking Hopper as the main villain, which allowed him to do all kinds of Dennis Hopper things.

Rather than have an inevitable, cliche subplot of a budding romance between the Mariner and Tripplehorn’s Helen, they just focused on the film’s driving plot, which revolved around needing access to the tattoo/map on Majorino’s young Enola, a map to the last dry land on earth. This isn’t complicated, the kid has something everyone wants, and the reluctant hero tries to protect her. That’s a perfectly good and clear motivation for a story that is focused on world building, one you can just enjoy for a couple hours. Not every film needs to be high art to be fun and exciting.

Waterworld spent all their money making a great looking movie that just wanted to entertain you, and it does that. How much it cost to make should have no bearing on how good it is. It’s been over 20 years, and we’ve all seen even more expensive films with bigger budgets bore us to tears (like just last month), so it’s time Waterworld‘s weight of expectations stops being held against it and we give it the love it deserves.

What do you think? Does Waterworld deserve more love than it gets? Tell us what you think in the comments below.

Image: Universal Pictures

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