September 6th 2023

Universal Pictures put a lot of faith, and money, into Waterworld, their summer tentpole for 1995. At that time it was the most expensive movie ever produced, with costs soaring past $235 million after prints and advertising, a budget soon eclipsed by James Cameron’s much more lucrative seafaring adventure Titanic (1997). Universal’s faith in Kevin Costner’s post-apocalyptic project didn’t stop at its hefty price tag; the studio changed their iconic opening logo to fit the film’s premise (a common novelty now, but rare at the time) and even brought the film to their Hollywood amusement park as the Waterworld Live Sea War Spectacular, a 16-minute parade of pyrotechnics, stunt work, and yes, plenty of water. Yet, somehow, despite all of the resources, money, and attention paid to make Waterworld a massive success, it failed to find an audience in theaters.

Waterworld, aside from its star power, is a difficult sell. Its most basic premise is disheartening, positing a future Earth where the polar ice caps have melted and turned the vast majority of the globe into one large ocean, where survivors live in floating societies constantly under siege by pirates. On paper, it’s an idea that would seem to lend itself better to a stark sci-fi drama like The Quiet Earth (1985) than to what star Kevin Costner and director Kevin Reynolds had in mind. The vision of these two creators—who had previously collaborated on the box office hit Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991)—would result in something much more akin to, and often referred to as, “Max Max on water”; a roaring spectacle of jet-skis, explosions, and gratuitous harpoon-gun usage, much of which was actually shot at sea.

Even before Waterworld opened, industry publications were buzzing about its disastrous production. Originally greenlit by Universal for a much more reasonable $65 million budget, the costs increased drastically as the crew hit one problem after another while attempting to shoot complicated action sequences on the ocean, forgoing the more controlled environment of a soundstage. The productions of Apocalypse Now (1979) and Heaven’s Gate (1980) had been similarly fraught (Waterworld was referred to as Kevin’s Gate). But while those shoots likewise battled natural elements and logistics of massive casts, Waterworld had the added trouble of being chock-full of effects- and stunt-heavy action set-pieces. These resulted in numerous injuries and even bringing crew members near death, a risk that the amusement-park performers still take.

Many of Waterworld’s production challenges are covered in Daniel Griffith’s feature-length documentary Maelstrom: The Odyssey of Waterworld (2018), which interviews many of the people involved in the making of the film, including Reynolds, discussing what went wrong (and also what went right). The story that film tells is of a perfect storm: nature, ambition, technology, and ego colliding, with no one person really at fault. Just about everyone behind the camera seems to have put everything they had into crafting a nearly three-hour post-apocalyptic action movie at sea.

Reynolds’s film was portrayed by tabloid columnists as a bloated, empty-headed, special-effects movie spearheaded by a holier-than-thou Costner, who was coming off another poorly received epic, Wyatt Earp (1994). The film was even being referred to as Fishtar in some circles, comparing Costner to Warren Beaty and his involvement in Elaine May’s commercially and critically disastrous Ishtar (1987). Reynolds and Costner had hoped to rekindle the energy of their Robin Hood, but the audiences followed the critics, and Waterworld did not manage to crack $90 million domestically.

Reynolds has long claimed that Universal hurt the film by cutting his initial three-hour cut down to a more manageable 135 minutes for theatrical release. His version, as well as a TV cut that re-incorporated 40 minutes of excised footage, have since been released on video. The version that purportedly adheres closest to Reynold’s initial wishes has been dubbed the “Ulysses Cut;” it is a fan edit that combines scenes added to the TV cut with uncensored moments from the theatrical release.

The knee-jerk reaction is always to side with the director in the case of studio tinkering, but if the Ulysses Cut is true to Reynolds’s original vision, it’s not that hard to see why many of the edits were made. In its theatrical cut, Waterworld is a relatively brisk, nearly always propulsive action movie. Its thrills are abundant, and this leaner cut allows for them to be experienced without so much exposition and worldbuilding slowing things down. That said, the Ulysses Cut does allow for more time with Costner’s character and others. In a way, Reynold’s original vision feels better suited to a mini-series, and it likely would be one if made today, in an era of binge-watching episodic content. Both the theatrical and the Ulysses cuts have their faults and advantages, but both feature Dennis Hopper with a rather hilarious fake eye and the most high speed jet-ski stunts this side of Hard Rain (1998), so it’s not like you can go wrong.

Waterworld has yet to be reappraised in the fashion that the flops it was initially compared to have been, namely Ishtar and Heaven’s Gate, but it has earned a respectful following over the past three decades. It is, to be sure, an obscenely expensive vanity project, but unlike The Postman (1997), it feels like Costner is genuinely trying to entertain. And, like Universal’s amusement-park stunt show, it’s a showcase for the dying art of practical effects; a sort of swan song for the pre-CG studio epic, made at a time when a movie star could convince a major conglomerate to let he and hundreds of other people stage a war on the open ocean and burn hundreds of millions of dollars in the process. In his own weird, solipsistic way, Kevin Costner may have been the prime Hollywood disruptor of the ’90s, and Waterworld is his magnum opus.

Waterworld screens this week, September 6–10, at Roxy Cinema on 35mm. Tonight’s show will be introduced by Screen Slate Editor-in-Chief Jon Dieringer, who will be shamelessly hawking Waterworld water bottles.