The latest Costner epic, as you probably know from news reports of its troubled production history, came in at a budget of $172 million, making it the most expensive motion picture of all time. An imposing phrase, "all time"! That would include the Pleistocene Epoch, the Iron Age and the Truman Administration.
But money is irrelevant. The Water-world concept is so wrongheaded, every oyster in the sea could have marched forth and contributed a pearl, then returned to the sand beds having accomplished exactly nothing. This futuristic action fantasy is set on the water (the continents having been submerged by melting ice caps), and the simple fact is that wide-screen H2O is terribly monotonous to look at. There is no beach even, and so one is deprived of the mild therapeutic pleasure of hearing the steady roar of the surf and a switched-on radio. Instead you have a Mad Max society of ragtag survivors who live (just barely) on corroded old oil rigs and tankers dotting the vast seascape.
Costner plays a stern mutant Mariner with webbed feet and tiny gills tucked behind his ears. (Imagined sight gag: He keeps putting Walkman headphones in the wrong place.) Plying the ocean blue in an enormous trimaran, this proud loner gets tangled up with a chain-smoking pirate (Hopper), a little girl (Tina Majorino), whose tattooed back may in fact be a map to dry land, and her guardian (Tripplehorn). Hopper seems to be the only one in the movie having any fun. But what underwater tobacco farm is producing all those cigarettes?
The best scenes in Waterworld—the only ones touched by anything resembling big-budget movie magic—are the precious few below or above the waves: a bathysphere trip to the bottom of the ocean and a journey in a hot-air balloon. Everything else is explosions, Jet Skis and fishing tackle. (PG-13)