Waterworld is an Underrated (Cult) Classic

This is a cinematic hill I will absolutely die on.

Today marks the 25th anniversary of Waterworld, aka Moist Max. It was a flop on release is generally not very well regarded by critics and audiences. But I have carried a torch for it the past two and a half decades. I will always sing this film’s praises, and I think it’s high time this film got its due.

Waterworld is 100% ahead of its time. It’s a shameless, aquatic ripoff of Mad Max, to be sure. But it was a high-concept B-Movie with an A-List cast and budget. Another decade and it would have been right at home alongside Reign of Fire, Pirates of the Caribbean or Avatar. Another decade later, it would fit in with Maze Runner, Snowpiercer or even Hunger Games.

Either way, it wasn’t quite what we were ready for. For action films, we were still swimming in the wake of Lethal Weapon and Die Hard, the everyman-in-a-tough-situation type of action film. Sci-fi and fantasy were squarely fascinated with space. We weren’t quite ready for an eco-conscious sci-fi/actioner starring Ray Kinsella.

And I think that’s kinda where the film’s premise fell apart for a lot of people. Climate change, the hole in the o-zone layer, rising sea levels, those were hot button issues at the time (because they totally aren’t now, at all… seriously climate change is real and we’re about a decade away from this movie becoming a quasi-reality), and this charged headfirst at them with a weird not-subtle allegory.

The film has a troubled and tortured production process which is well documented. All of that without a doubt leads to the admittedly underwhelming finished product that is just too all over the place to be a true genre masterpiece.

With a a better, non-Costner-attached hand guiding this film, even the more batshit elements of the film could have stuck the landing to construct a far-out, swing-for-the-fences type of cinematic gamble that pays off in very enjoyable ways. Dennis Hopper was in his 90s scenery chewing phase that matched the tone the film was trying to hit, it’s just too bad the rest of the film couldn’t rise to his level.

But as it is, the film’s biggest sin is that Costner was riding high on his own press, following big successes with Robin Hood, Dances With Wolves and Wyatt Earp.

Is it a great film? No. I will not ever claim this to be a well made, hallmark of a film. But my interests skew towards genre films, as there are very interesting things happening in sci-fi, horror and fantasy. And I always admire big risks in genre films. I urge you, as the film hits the quarter century mark, give the film another shot. It’s not great, but but it’s a wildly enjoyable, if uneven ride.

Should it get a remake? Not as a film, but I’d certainly be down with a high-concept, film-adjacent series. TNT took on Snowpiercer, just set it a few years prior. I think USA, SyFy, or even Universal’s streaming platform Peacock could rock a solid in-universe series that explores the mythos and history a bit more in depth.

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