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The Wet Look

Waterworld is a whirlpool of dazzling action, and muddled ideas

Given what we've heard about the film's chaotic production history, the opening image of Waterworld has a certain juvenile charm: the world-famous logo of Universal Pictures, which bankrolled the movie -- a pristine blue planet floating in a serene sea of stars -- mutates so that the land is swallowed up by indigo wetness. Our first introduction to this science-fiction epic's hero, a taciturn, nomadic, half-man, half-fish creature known only as the Mariner (Kevin Costner), is equally provocative: we see him standing on his ornate trimaran with his back to the audience, tensing his buttocks as he urinates into a bottle. Then he pours the urine into a filtering machine, transforms it into drinking water and treats himself to a big, fat swig.

I've got to hand it to Costner and his director, Kevin Reynolds. Any $200 million visionary epic that begins with its studio's logo being symbolically drowned and its star guzzling a mug of his own piss at least wins points for subversiveness.

Unfortunately, although the film is better than advance press reports predicted, it doesn't hold onto this compelling tone of grungy weirdness. Despite a few brilliantly inventive action scenes, as a movie, Waterworld is too much like its setting: a visually awesome but ultimately empty place constructed from secondhand parts.

Accurately described by its makers as Mad Max on the water, this is another one of those brutal, post-apocalyptic swashbucklers that peddles a look, a style and an attitude pieced together from bits and pieces of other genres: biker flicks, Kurosawa movies, sci-fi, Japanimation and Sergio Leone Westerns. Set in the vaguely distant future, it foresees a harsh world where humans either live on giant floating atolls or prowl the seas like aquatic hyenas, fishing for food to eat and diving for junk to barter. The more peaceable humans struggle to build a makeshift society with something approaching a moral code, but they're constantly being terrorized by a gang of thugs known as the Smokers -- so named because they tear across the waves in internal combustion-powered barges, jet skis and even seaplanes powered by crude oil they found in an abandoned supertanker.

The leader of the Smokers, a megalomaniac called the Deacon (Dennis Hopper, who's been given a bald head, an eye patch and a grunge-pimp wardrobe in lieu of characterization), has heard the persistent Waterworld rumor that dry land still exists. He's also heard that on one of the atolls lives a mystical little girl named Enola (Tina Marjorino) whose back is emblazoned with an indecipherable map that supposedly points the way to this dry land. So he spends the movie trying to steal Enola away from her mom, Helen (Jeanne Tripplehorn), but he's continually thwarted by the crafty Mariner. And that's the movie.

Or at least, that's what it probably should have been. If Waterworld were really that simple, and if everyone involved had dedicated themselves to exploring the fictional universe they created in obsessive but consistent detail, the result could have been a classic fantasy fable like The Wizard of Oz, The Empire Strikes Back or The Road Warrior -- a movie that immerses you so deeply in its dreamy atmosphere that you shut down the logical part of your brain and go wherever the story feels like taking you.

Various articles about the film's production claim that early drafts of Peter Rader and David Twohy's screenplay gave it the old college try. But the story got caught in a three-way tug of war between Reynolds, an oddball visual stylist whose resume includes Fandango and the superb, little-seen action movie The Beast; Costner, who's drawn to edgy, sometimes off-putting material; and the studio, which wanted an audience-friendly blockbuster it could use to sell lunch boxes, action figures and other knickknacks. The result is a movie that's like a delirious sailor lost at sea without a compass: it has no clear idea where it wants to go or why. So it heads in one direction, then backs up and heads in another.

The first half-hour of the movie is spare and direct. The Mariner defends himself against a treacherous sea trader and a gang of jet-ski-riding Smoker henchmen, then travels to an atoll, where he's accused of being a Smoker spy, placed in a cage over a pit of goo and threatened with execution for killing a man in self-defense. The filmmaking is so pure and unfussy that it's reminiscent of Buster Keaton comedies: just image after image of men, machines and the environment locked in bitter conflict. Director Reynolds, his gifted cinematographer Dean Semler (who photographed the last two Mad Max movies and won an Oscar for Dances with Wolves) and ace editor Peter Boyle keep the narrative moving along in a series of gorgeous but precise shots; they give you just enough information to get your bearings, but they don't linger. The pounding, synthesized score, coupled with the production design's junky, rummage-sale look, prepare you for a tough, crazy film about tough, crazy survivors making do in a nightmarishly difficult environment.

Then the Smokers attack the atoll. The score cranks up into a series of loud, orchestral, aren't-we-having-a-grand-old-time riffs, and suddenly we're watching a high-tech remake of The Crimson Pirate mixed with the finale of a James Bond movie: bullets flying, vehicles exploding, adrenaline-crazed combatants hurling themselves through the air like human badminton birdies and the Mariner swinging from parapets like Burt Lancaster with gills. Then, just when you've gotten used to this shift in tone, the Mariner rescues Enola and Helen and heads out to sea in his trimaran, and the picture inexplicably turns into a semi-psychodrama about three bickering people in a boat. And whatever narrative momentum Waterworld has generated dissipates like fog at sunrise.

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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