Typically overshadowed by its bloated budget and troubled production, Kevin Reynolds' Waterworld (1995) was the butt of almost every joke immediately following its theatrical release. Although remembered as a box-office flop (it wasn't, at least taking into account foreign markets and home video profits) and maligned by critics, this post-apocalyptic drama managed to maintain a decent fanbase and, during the last 20+ years, keep its head above water. I hadn't seen it in quite a while but remembered enjoying its sweeping action, ambitious scope, and...uh...that one scene.
Originally envisioned as a low-budget Mad Max rip-off, Waterworld eventually became a high-budget Mad Max rip-off as production estimates grew and Kevin Costner expressed interest in the lead role. This all led to the most expensive film ever made at the time (approximately $175M, not counting distribution and marketing costs), no doubt due to shooting in a large artificial seawater enclosure off the coast of Hawaii and battling weather-related setbacks including Costner's near-drowning and the loss of a multi-million dollar "Atoll" set during a hurricane. Yet those lofty ambitions, which proved to be the film's initial downfall, are the main reasons why it's managed to hold up more than two decades later. Warts and all, Waterworld offers a unique and compelling thrill ride whose eco-centric story meshes organically with its wide atmosphere, a curious blend of The Road Warrior and later fare like The Pirates of the Caribbean.
Waterworld follows human life centuries from now. Earth's polar ice caps have long since melted, covering most of its land with a near-endless ocean, so commodities like dirt, mirrors, and fresh water have become extremely valuable. "The Mariner" (Costner), sole owner of a uniquely outfitted raft, survives by selling and trading his wares. His most recent haul has made him the richest visitor in The Atoll (above), one of several isolated floating communities, attracting the attention of its leaders. Before long, The Mariner's doing business with shop owner Helen (Jeanne Tripplehorn), adoptive mother of a mysterious young tattooed girl named Enola (Tina Majorino). Helen and her daughter are not well-liked because of Enola's mysterious origins and tattoo -- a map to Earth's last remaining dry land, supposedly -- which make her a target of The Smokers, a band of pirates led by one-eyed Deacon (Dennis Hopper). The Mariner is imprisoned out of public fear, Deacon attacks, and our three outcasts attempt a daring escape against incredible odds.
That's just the first 30 minutes and Waterworld clocks in at over two hours...but to its credit, the theatrical cut maintains a decent pace and allows smooth access into its turbulent, unpredictable atmosphere while feeling...unfinished in several areas. (Not surprising, given the strained relationship between Costner and director Kevin Reynolds, who would not work together again until 2012's History Channel mini-series Hatfields & McCoys.) Fortunately, Arrow's new three-disc Limited Edition, which will likely draw comparisons to other deluxe releases of questionable fare like Pearl Harbor: Vista Series and Heaven's Gate: Criterion Collection, includes two additional cuts of Waterworld for the first time on Blu-ray.
Disc 2 offers up the extended TV Version (first released on DVD in 2008) with roughly 40 minutes of additional scenes; a detailed rundown of all the changes can be seen here. It fleshes out Waterworld's story for the better in most cases -- including a great big revelation at the end -- but is edited for network TV and uses alternate takes during certain scenes. Luckily, the story doesn't end there: we also get the fabled Ulysses Cut on Disc 3, which began as a fan edit and has now been officially rebuilt from the best-known elements. (Essentially, it's the longer TV cut with all the PG-13 stuff added back in, which will undoubtedly make it the preferred version among die-hard fans.) The fact that something like this legally exists is outstanding and another feather in the cap for Arrow Video and Blu-ray in general...so even if you vividly remember hating Waterworld, I daresay it's now worth a revisit to just about everyone. This isn't a perfect movie by any stretch, but the great action and ambitious production design make it a pretty enjoyable thrill ride.
All three cuts of Waterworld included here -- the Theatrical, TV, and "Ulysses" editions -- are fully or largely sourced from Arrow's brand-new 4K scan of the film's original camera negative, while a few short scenes in the latter two cuts are upscaled from standard definition. The result is an impressive 1080p transfer that's obviously a solid upgrade from earlier editions, the most recent being Universal's 2009 Blu-ray. Since at least 95% of Waterworld was filmed outdoors under bright sunlight and little to no shade, the amount of detail here is staggering at times and really allows the film's great production and costume design to shine. Textures and facial details are especially strong, while mid-range and wide shots maintain a solid appearance with no obvious macroblocking or compression artifacts. Aside from the upscaled footage (which is so brief it barely registers and becomes easier to ignore after the first few instances) and a few bits of dodgy CGI or green-screened shots, this is a very consistent presentation that fans and first-timers should enjoy. The theatrical cut gets a solid 5/5; both other versions are so close to perfection, I'll keep my rating there.
NOTE: The images on this page do not necessarily represent the title under review.
Not to be outdone is the default DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio mix (also available in lossless 2.0) for all three cuts, which doesn't appear to feature any obvious variances in quality or overall effectiveness. This is a largely front-loaded affair but opens up substantially during may stretches, whether it's during action sequences, crowded atolls, or one of James Newton Howard's many rousing cues. Dialogue is clean and crisply-recorded, while panning effects are well-handled and really help maintain an expansive atmosphere from start to finish. Low-frequency effects are strong without feeling overcooked. Although it's doubtful that this mix represents any kind of head-and-shoulders upgrade over the previous Blu-ray (for all I know, it's identical), it's a great-sounding disc with basically no room for improvements. Optional English (SDH) titles have been included during all three cuts as well, but none of the other bonus features.
A look at Arrow's beautiful Limited Edition packaging (click to enlarge)
Arrow's packaging here is similar in size and appearance to their past Limited Editions, including Donnie Darko and The Apartment. It's an impressive brick that includes three discs inside a clear hinged keepcase with reversible sleeve designs featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Paul Shipper, as well as six collector's Postcards. Also here is a 60-page perfect-bound Book featuring new writing on the film by David J. Moore and Daniel Griffith, archival articles, vintage advertisements, and original reviews, plus a double-sided Poster that replicates both cover options. As for the menus, all three discs feature Arrow's standard interface with clips from the main feature, music, and well-organized navigation with descriptions of all applicable content. As always, an outstanding effort from top to bottom.
Not counting the TV and "Ulysses" cuts on Disc 2 and 3 -- exclusive to this Limited Edition -- there's a nice collection of great material here and it's all included on the first disc. The main attraction is "Maelstrom: The Odyssey of Waterworld" (103 minutes), a feature-length restrospective documentary that covers a lot of ground. Featuring participation from director Kevin Reynolds, writer Peter Rader, producer Charles Gordon, director of photography Dean Semler, film historian Justin Humphreys, executive producer Ilona Herzberg, production designer Dennis Gassner, stunt coordinator R.A. Rondell, second assistant director Robert Huberman, production assistant David Bernstein, lead scene artist Michael Denering, script supervisor Ana Maria Quintana, and several others -- including cast members Kevin Costner, Jeanne Tripplehorn, and Tina Majorino, at least via archival interview clips -- "Maelstrom" provides an exhaustive look back at this production through twists, turns, highs, and lows that almost overshadow the film itself.
On a related note is "Dances with Waves" (10 minutes), a vintage EPK-style featurette that similarly brings together an assortment of on-set clips and interviews with a handful of key cast and crew members. It's interesting enough from a historical perspective and, if nothing else, stands in contrast in overall tone with the longer documentary.
Up next is "Global Warnings" (23 minutes), which features NYT film critic Glenn Kenny as he discusses other big-budget Hollywood disaster epics from the past few decades including The Day After Tomorrow and Deep Impact. It's a well-meaning piece that, like Waterworld itself, gets the message across without a lot of heavy-handed preaching. Consider this an extended version of those "You May Also Like..." trailer collections from the early DVD days.
Last but not least is a massive Production Image Gallery that's broken down into a number of smaller sections including "Concept Art" (64 images), Production Stills (73 images), "Behind the Scenes: Hawaii" (35 images), "Behind the Scenes: Los Angeles" (23 images), and "Miniatures & Visual Effects" (45 stills), as well as a Promotional Image Gallery with posters, lobby cards, and other promotional materials (36 images total). Also in that section are the film's Theatrical Trailer, Teaser, and a whopping 14 TV Spots. Overall, it's a fantastic collection of extras, and even more impressive since earlier editions -- Universal's 2009 Blu-ray included -- only featured a theatrical trailer at the very most.
Kevin Reynolds' Waterworld was everyone's favorite target back in 1995. This famously troubled production had a budget that just kept growing and, though not a financial success by any means, it's wrongfully remembered as a box-office flop. Although I remembered enjoying this one in my late teenage years, I hadn't seen it in quite a while and was prepared for the worst...but it's actually held up surprisingly well, both for its ambitious scope and the eco-driven message lurking beneath. It doesn't win many acting awards, but there's more than enough to grant Waterworld a second life more than two decades later. Arrow's outstanding Limited Edition furthers that notion: it's a top-tier effort with excellent A/V specs, plus a host of extras led by two alternate cuts and a feature-length retrospective documentary. It's a great choice for established fans, but everyone else might want to hold out for the standard edition. Highly Recommended.
Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey by day and film reviewer by night. He also does freelance design work and runs a website or two. In his free time, Randy also enjoys slacking off, juggling HD DVDs, and writing in third person.