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The Wet Look

Waterworld is a whirlpool of dazzling action, and muddled ideas

When a movie keeps lurching between modes, it jars you out of your dream state, and you find yourself pondering questions that, if the movie was better, wouldn't have occurred to you until late that night as you were removing leftovers from the refrigerator. Questions such as, If there's no land to provide stability, then how can humans build huge, complicated floating atolls? And, If the Mariner is a highly evolved aquatic man, and evolution takes hundreds of thousands of years to work its magic, wouldn't all the vehicles the Smokers use during raids be rotted beyond use? And, How come the regular humans ostracize mutants? I mean, the Mariner is a Waterworld citizen's dream: pay him right, and he'd dive under your atoll and spend hours doing repair work, or catch you a ton of fish in about an hour.

Even minor details don't hold up. I can understand why all the Smokers smoke -- even the future will probably contain vices. But where do they get the tobacco, and why do they smoke cigarettes with filters? And why does the Deacon need Enola alive? Couldn't he just make a copy of the map on her back, then feed her to the sharks?

For an example of fantasy that carefully considers such issues and even provides some answers, look to Waterworld's inspiration, the Mad Max series. In various installments, we see petrol being generated from pig feces, the hero siphoning valuable drops of gasoline from wrecked vehicles and all-male biker gangs who, for practical reasons, have given up heterosexuality without a backward glance. These details aren't lingered over; we see them in glimpses, then move on. But their presence reassures us that the filmmakers took their premise seriously and worried about making all the pieces fit. And whatever plausibility problems might exist don't seem important because the pictures are so ferociously tight, focused and colorful. Because the filmmakers sincerely believe in the story they're telling, you do, too.

I was never convinced that the makers of Waterworld completely believed in the world they created. Reynolds and his crew obviously believe in skillful filmmaking; some of the picture's baroque sets, preposterous action scenes and Heavy Metal-pop art compositions are as striking as anything you'll see this summer. But these intentions don't count for much when the film that contains them is so derivative, sloppy and devoid of human interest.

One of Waterworld's most costly miscalculations came about because the filmmakers refused to listen to people who warned against building floating sets on location in one of Hawaii's windiest offshore areas. One of the biggest sets sank and had to be rebuilt from scratch, and the shooting schedule went to hell because it was so hard to choreograph action on choppy waves.

From the look of the finished product, the same fate befell the narrative. Reynolds, Costner and Universal dove into production without knowing from the start exactly what kind of movie they wanted to make. They made things up as they went along and kept contradicting themselves. The result is like an aircraft carrier built without a blueprint: it's certainly unique, but it won't float worth a damn.

Waterworld.
Directed by Kevin Reynolds. With Kevin Costner, Jeanne Tripplehorn and Dennis Hopper.

Rated PG-13.
134 minutes.

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