Like John Travolta and Cuba Gooding Jr., Kevin Costner is as famous for his flops as his successes. Costner has been down for so long that it can be easy to forget just how huge a star he was in the late '80 and early '90s. Starting with 1987's The Untouchables, Costner enjoyed a massive hot streak that catapulted him to the top of the A-list with a string of commercial hits that included No Way Out, Bull Durham, Field Of Dreams, Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves, Dances With Wolves, JFK, and The Bodyguard.
Then Costner stumbled with 1994's Wyatt Earp and a pair of smaller-scale projects: the well-regarded if commercially underperforming Clint Eastwood-directed drama A Perfect World and The War. If Wyatt Earp, A Perfect World, and The War all represented chinks in Costner's previously impregnable armor, 1995's Waterworld was more like a gaping, hemorrhaging chest wound, an epic folly that sent Costner's professional momentum careening in the wrong direction. Over the next decade, a man who had come to symbolize success and steely determination grew to epitomize failure and an almost pathological unwillingness to learn from past mistakes. In retrospect, Waterworld looks like a project of surreal idiocy, but at the time it must have looked like a risky but semi-sane gamble. Sure the film cost a bundle, went way over budget, and had a famously troubled production history, but so did Dances With Wolves and we all know how well that turned out. Sure, Waterworld was a grim, joyless Kevin Reynolds-directed adventure that fetishized dirt and grime and boasted a cartoonishly theatrical villain, but so was Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves and that made a mint for everyone involved.
A crucial difference, however, is that Prince Of Thieves cast one of the biggest box-office attractions in the world as a beloved hero ubiquitous in Western culture throughout the centuries. Waterworld, meanwhile, casts Costner as a pee-drinking man-fish, a creature understandably unique to the film's grim dystopian universe. With the notable exception of the Sheriff of Nottingham and a certain pretender to the British throne, everybody knows and loves Robin Hood. Pee-drinking men-fish? Not so much.
Waterworld immediately throws down the gauntlet by introducing Costner's mysterious water-drifter urinating, then gulping down his own sweet elixir. It's possible that there are more off-putting ways to introduce the hero of a giant would-be blockbuster (at the time Waterworld was the most expensive movie ever made), but until some Costner-level auteur of the future develops the testicular fortitude to introduce a hero raping a nun, defecating on an American flag, or attending to painful hemorrhoids, Waterworld's record for queasiest introduction of a stoic hero appears secure.
Of course, it is possible that the filmmakers were merely setting up a commercial deal with an obliging soda company (I can imagine Costner slamming a Dew, pissing it out, then re-slamming it while gushing "Mountain Dew: tastes even better the second time around!") or priming audiences for a high-profile Waterworld line of urine filtration systems.
Costner's urine-drinking escapade primes audiences for abundant distasteful behavior down the road. Later, Costner casually proposes killing a child (Tina Majorino) as a way of lightening his boat's load before consenting to a creepy drifter's offer to exchange paper for a half-hour's worth of sexytime explosions with a mortified Jeanne Tripplehorn.
Yet while Costner flirts with such deplorable behavior, he's too noble to follow through: Majorino is thrown overboard later, but doesn't meet a watery grave and Costner intervenes before the creepy trader can compromise Tripplehorn's lady-virtue. Costner has an excuse for his sub-human behavior however: he's not quite human and not quite fish, but rather a strange combination of the two, with webbed feet, gills and a whole lotta human parts as well. Waterworld explains away Costner's mutations as a mischievous quirk of evolution, but I prefer to think he's actually a descendent of the character David Cross played in Mr. Show's "Life Raft Talk Show" skit who, as his final thought, gushes "Before I die, I'ma fuck me a fish!" Costner's peculiar genealogical make-up suggests that Cross' white-trash fish-fucker got his wish.
Costner makes a grim living trading amidst other post-apocalyptic drifters in a nightmarish future in which the melting of the polar ice caps have left the world submerged in water. Costner eventually picks up some strange cargo in the form of sexy barmaid Tripplehorn and Majorino, a precocious child with a map to "Dryland"– a mythical paradise and apparently the last speck of earth not covered in water–on her back.
Costner's efforts to lead Majorino and Tripplehorn to Dryland are threatened by the sinister exertions of the Smokers, a nefarious group of Earth-hating, pollution-loving baddies led by Dennis Hopper.
Post-apocalyptic movies are at an inherent commercial disadvantage in that audiences understandably would rather escape their troubles for an hour and a half than be confronted with horrifying visions of what the future might hold. Consequently, successful post-apocalyptic joints must offer something to offset their innate pessimism and ugliness, whether it's visceral action thrills (the Mad Max trilogy), loopy imagination (Twelve Monkeys) or masterful filmmaking rooted in the anxieties of the present (Children Of Men). Waterworld, by comparison, offers only pessimism and ugliness, spiritually as well as aesthetically, most spectacularly in the form of the some of the most hideous sets ever created, extravagant eyesores even the film's production designer must have been happy to be seen torn down.
Watching Waterworld, I was struck by how strongly its plot echoed that of Children of Men. Both films center on a futuristic dystopia defined by what they desperately, perhaps even fatally, lack. In Waterworld that's dry land. In Children of Men it's fertility. Both films similarly revolve around brooding loners who reluctantly act as guardians and protectors of young women with vaguely messianic qualities.
So why is Children Of Men considered a masterpiece and one of the defining films of this decade and Waterworld a near-universally reviled flop? I think a lot of it boils down to verisimilitude. Children Of Men unnervingly captures the paranoia and free-floating dread of the uncertain present. Like the best science fiction, it's less a dispatch from the future than a savvy extrapolation of the present graced with multi-dimensional, sympathetic characters and unstoppable kineticism. Children Of Men says a lot about the chaotic world we live in; Waterworld speaks only to the arrogance and miscalculation of its creators.
Waterworld, by contrast, can't decide what kind of terrible movie it wants to be. The few scattered attempts at satire or social commentary, like Hopper's deification of disgraced Exxon Valdez captain Joseph Hazelwood, are so fuzzy and half-baked they make The Day After Tomorrow look like An Inconvenient Truth by comparison. Hopper clearly seems to be enjoying himself–at least someone is–but his cartoon villainy seems to belong in a different movie than Costner's glowering anti-heroism, which aims for Clint Eastwood/Gary Cooper stoic grace, but just comes off as churlish and unpleasant.
If nothing else, Waterworld at least should have knocked some sense into Costner. After all, nobody, no matter how stubborn, would be self-destructive enough to make another horrifically bloated post-apocalyptic epic a mere two years after his last one dive-bombed so spectacularly, right? For an answer, check out the next My Year Of Flops installment, 1997's The Postman. Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Fiasco