I suppose you know you're in trouble when you have to start a movie review by saying, "Well, it really isn't that bad." But there is no other way to introduce 'Waterworld,' a film that became so notorious months before its release that it seemed doomed to failure before even a foot of film unspooled in theaters. Dubbed a boondoggle by the press as its budget rapidly escalated (reported at nearly $200 million by the time production wrapped) and as on-set tensions flared between star Kevin Costner and director Kevin Reynolds, it quickly became clear that unless 'Waterworld' became one of the biggest hits in the history of cinema, it was going to lose money. And that, of course, is exactly what happened. Truth be told, though, 'Waterworld' was not a flop. Despite taking a heavy drubbing by critics, it earned decent returns worldwide, and even inspired a stunt show which still operates at the Universal Studios theme parks. Okay, so maybe this is no 'Jurassic Park,' but 'Waterworld' is a bit better than its reputation suggests, and if nothing else, deserves a better hand than it has been dealt.
The story goes like this: sometime in the future, the Earth's ice caps have melted and almost all of the planet is submerged under water. Struggling for survival, humans have formed their own small societies -- some civilized, some more savage -- that barter for food, supplies and shelter. Costner stars as the Mariner, one of a race of more evolved humans that have grown gills and can breathe for longer periods of time under water. Though a drifter with little idealism, the Mariner will come to crusade against Deacon (Dennis Hopper) over a local peasant mother (Jeanne Tripplehorn) whose young daughter Enola (Tina Majorino) holds the key to a mythical place called "Dryland." Mariner must make a choice -- continue to rob and scourge, or defeat Deacon for the very future of mankind.
'Waterworld' falls into the grand tradition of the post-apocalyptic thriller, which can range from the visionary (the Mad Max films) to the dreadful (anything with Dolph Lundgren in it). 'Waterworld' comes up somewhere in between, due both to the rather unpleasant future world it imagines and its casting. To me, Costner was the wrong choice for the Mariner and nowhere as cool as Mel Gibson once was in his heyday. He also seems tired, as if the weight of the production and the behind-the-scenes squabbling eventually took its toll. Hopper has always been too hammy when he doesn't have a director that reins him in, which Reynolds doesn't seem to even try to do. Tripplehorn and the talented little Majorino fare much better, but they aren't enough to save the film from Costner's stoic blandness and Hopper's scenery chewing.
The look of the film is also a liability.Quite frankly, the waterworld depicted in the movie is an ugly looking future, and the production design -- while obviously expensive -- just don't excite the senses. There is nothing as imaginative here as seen in the Mad Max films, or even a Resident Evil movie. And looking at all that blue water for 136-minutes gets rather monotonous -- I soon tuned out of the movie, to the point where I just didn't much care what happened to the Mariner and all these other faceless folks.
Yet parts of 'Waterworld' are still quite enjoyable. It's easy to see why the film became a stunt show at Universal -- all manner of boats, floatation devices and jet skiers whiz by, splashing water all over the place and screaming, "I will get you, Mariner!" It plays just like a theme park ride, and on that level, 'Waterworld' is kinda fun. And while the film may not have anything new to say, it's also by no means a catastrophe. If you like post-apocalyptic action films, then it is a world worth visiting at least once.
'Waterworld' hits HD DVD in a very nice 1.85:1 widescreen, 1080p/VC-1 video transfer. The source material does suffer a slightly dated appearance, but it is amazing how modern technology can make a now-ten year-old film still look pretty darn good most of the time.
'Waterworld' was made right at the tail end of the era before CGI took over, so it does not have that processed, snazzy look of today's action movies. It is very earthy and film-like, so grain is present throughout. More problematic is some noticeable dirt. Things don't start off too well, with frequent speckles and dropouts, and the end credits also look somewhat shabby. The majority of the film is improved, although this is far from the cleanest transfer I've seen on HD DVD. 'Waterworld' is also slightly softer than the average more modern transfer, but remains quite sharp for its age.
Contrast varies somewhat. As most of the film is shot in bright daylight exteriors, it can look terrific. Interiors and overcast shots appear much flatter. Colors can also look rough around the edges. The sea blues and orange fleshtones shimmer, but hues are never as vibrant as the best I've seen on HD DVD. (Chroma noise is not a problem, however.) Finally, detail is quite good, especially in the close-ups -- longshots suffer from the aforementioned softness, dirt and dampened contrast. I was honestly torn between giving 'Waterworld' three-and-a-half or four stars for video because when it's good, it's very good, but then there are other times where it's just okay. Ultimately I (perhaps chartitably) gave it four stars, as I think diehard fans of the film will be pleased.
Even more of a surprise than the video is how well 'Waterworld's soundtrack has held up after ten years. The film's sound design is really quite active, with an almost constant use of score and effects. Even during the quietest moments there always seems to be something happening sonically, which really creates a "wall of sound" type of effect that greatly heightens the atmosphere.
Though a Dolby TrueHD track would actually have been quite cool for 'Waterworld,' Universal instead serves up a strong Dolby Digital-Plus 5.1 surround track (encoded at 1.5mbps). I remain impressed. Surround use is very prominent, with plenty of discrete effects in just about every scene. Imaging is also quite good, with pans between channels near seamless. James Newton Howard's score is both pretentious and percussive, and the deep low bass makes for a relentless presence and is quite satisfying. Dynamics are also top notch, with clear and distinct dialogue reproduction and excellent depth to the mid-range. I doubt there are too many ten-year-old soundtracks that sound as good as this one.
Rare for an HD DVD title these days, there is not a single supplement on this disc. Not even a trailer. But then, the standard-def DVD didn't really have any extras, either. Since most of the people involved with 'Waterworld' have probably wiped it off their resumes, I guess I can't say I'm surprised.
'Waterworld' is far from the terrible film its reputation suggests, but then it isn't that great, either. It works best as home theater demo material, which this HD DVD delivers fairly well. The transfer suffers from some age-related wear and tear, but overall both the video and the soundtrack hold up quite well. Alas, there is not a single extra on the release, so compared to most other HD DVD titles, 'Waterworld' doesn't offer much value for money. This one is for fans only.