Every month, Daniel Bernstein watches an old movie of questionable quality. Armed with the belief that there are lessons to be learned in all situations, he and another Steel Bananas columnist attempt to find meaning where maybe there isn’t any. This month, Daniel sits with Colin Fallowfield in an attempt to analyze legendary box-office bomb Waterworld starring Kevin Costner.
Synopsis – Spoiler Warning
Waterworld follows the story of several people living in a post apocalyptic world. It is established early on that due to the melting of the polar ice caps, the planet has become flooded and dry land has now become merely a myth. The remaining humans live either on floating atolls, or are a member of the dangerous polluting pirate-like ‘Smokers’.
The film opens when a mysterious stranger, known only as the Mariner (Kevin Costner) arrives at an atoll with wares to trade. Namely pure earth, which has become a valuable commodity. However, the Mariner is quickly arrested when the Atollers discover that he has gills and webbed feet. They decide to execute him, but before they can the atoll is attacked by the Smokers, led by the maniacal religious figure the Deacon (Dennis Hopper). The Mariner is able to escape the onslaught with the help of Helen (Jeanne Tripplehorn) who earns a spot on his boat with her adopted daughter Enola (Tina Majorino).
Enola has a tattoo on her back that is supposed to be a map to dry land. Helen believes that the Mariner has seen it and demands that he take them to it. In the mean time, the Deacon has also heard about Enola and spends the next hour or so in the movie searching desperately for the Mariner’s boat. After an hour of character development, the Deacon finally manages to capture Enola when the Mariner leaves his boat with her in order to show Helen the ruins of an old city underneath the water. The Mariner and Helen only manage to escape with the help of the surviving Atollers.
In the end the Mariner mounts an action packed rescue to save Enola and manages to kill the Deacon, defeat the Smokers and sink their vessel, the Exxon Valdez. Then with the remaining survivors he eventually finds a beautiful island paradise that Enola’s tattoo did in fact lead to. However, the Mariner finds himself unaccustomed to life on dry land and leaves his surrogate family to continue his life as a lone wolf… er… fish.
It cannot be denied that this staple cinematic masterpiece is rife with social implications and moral messages. The first and foremost of these, of course, involves the environment: the 'ancients' have destroyed the planet until the ice caps melt and cover the entire planet in salt water. This results in the most prized commodities becoming dirt and 'pure hydro'. No longer the commonplace elements that we take for granted, these material representations of the natural world symbolize what humanity should be most concerned about in the present. Their utility is what is obviously most prized; dirt can be used for growing food, which is scarce in their world, and with salt water covering most of their planet, fresh water is some of the only sustenance available. Of course the evil Smokers are more nostalgic and continue the proud tradition of our modern world of hoarding non-renewable resources such as oil and gasoline, represented by the sunken oil tanker 'Exxon Valdez' which famously spilled oil in the 1980's, ruining the ecosystem off the coast of Alaska. Writers Peter Rader and David Twohy knew what they were doing in making this ship the base of operations for the antagonistic Smokers. A modern symbol of environmental destruction becomes the symbol of evil piracy in the future. The Smokers represent all pollution: fossil fuels, bullets rather than air-powered weaponry of the noble settlers and Atollers, motors rather than sails, incessantly smoking cigarettes to pollute their own bodies. They are scavengers, users-up, bleeding one place until bled and then moving on. An allegory for modern humanity? Perhaps. And then there's Kevin Costner. He has gills.
You have to love when a movie tries so hard to hit you over the head with its message. Especially when it seems to fail so spectacularly in everything else. Waterworld is so full of environmentalist theories. What makes it especially hilarious though is this theory of global warming causing the polar ice caps to melt. Yes, we are now fairly certain that global warming actually exists and yes, we are quite sure that it is a bad thing. The notion that the planet will heat up enough to flood out all of our land is fairly ridiculous.
As for the film being an allegory for modern humanity, I am not entirely convinced. Maybe it is because, believe it or not, I do still have faith in humanity. The film strives to point out the ugliness that we all have inside, especially when ruled by fear. The main antagonists in the film are the Smokers, led by the maniacal Deacon (Hopper). The Deacon is seen by his followers as a religious figure and one who is the latest incarnation of the messiah (in the film the god figure is former Exxon Valdez captain Hazelwood). He rules his Smokers with a mix of fear-mongering and false promises. The result is a ruthless society of religious zealots who desperately cling to the old ways of life.
On the opposite side of this coin you have the Mariner. He is a man who has long given up finding dry land and in fact has adapted to the Waterworld in every way possible. His boat has just enough that he has no need to interact with the rest of the human race until absolutely necessary. His system of sailing has been refined that he merely needs to throw a few levers in order to raise or lower his sails. Most telling is the fact that his body has adapted and now, with his gills, he can breathe underwater. In fact, the only thing that he truly lacks for most of the film is the ability to interact with other people in a meaningful way.
The Mariner’s inability to connect with this rest of humanity brings up the key concept of the cultural ‘other’ apparent in this film. The Mariner is a true outsider, segregated from the rest of humanity by his gills and webbed feet, but also his temperament. He is shunned for his difference by both the survivalist Atollers and the consumerist Smokers, met by both sides with hostility and fear, finding no society in which he can live comfortably. Consequentially, he is forced to be an outsider, a loner, drifting around on the water with almost no human contact. More interesting though, is how his ‘otherness’ seems to be self-induced as well. Assuming that no society will ever accept him, the Mariner projects the identity of the ‘other’ upon himself, taking the coward’s road and hiding from the world, fearful of the rejection that he has undoubtedly been met with so many times in his past. This self-pitying attitude has hardened him and it is no coincidence that another ‘other’, Enola, is the only one to break through that shell and reach through to the Mariner’s soul.
Enola is a fascinating character. As another cultural other, floating into the atoll in a basket direct from Dryland, she is never fully accepted either and is met with suspicion by the superstitious Atollers. While the Mariner embraces his ‘otherness’, however, Enola battles against it, longing to be accepted into society and have a normal life. It is at the will of another (her adoptive mother Helen) that she is hidden from the world. This shows an incredible strength of character, which the Mariner learns from. Enola is the sole symbol of hope in the film; she is a child (the future), she is a female (life-giving), she is creative and exploitative (willingness), all characteristics that humanity should highly prize. It is she that leads the people out of their tumult and into the bright new future, suggesting quite emphatically that only the children can save humanity from the very wet future it is striving toward.
Oh Enola! For somebody that is supposed to be the savior of humanity she sure gets the crap knocked out of her throughout the movie. It seems that the finer arts of child rearing are lost on this post-apocalyptic society. It is understandable that the Deacon is cruel towards her, he is the villain after all. Throughout the portions of the movie where she is captured by him Enola is chained up, emotionally abused and, worst of all, offered cigarettes. The things that would get child services running however are the things that the Mariner does to her. Every offense she commits, no matter how minor, is punishable at the very least by shouting matches and negative reinforcement. The emotional abuse the Mariner lays on her is almost as bad as what is done by the Deacon. It gets worse though. For certain major offenses, the Mariner cuts off her hair and throws her into the water. This wouldn’t be so bad except for the fact that Enola can’t swim. Great parenting skills!
Besides being a prepubescent punching bag, Enola has the distinction of being the most important person in Waterworld. She alone has the key to finding dry land and in a way that contrasts the Deacon, becomes a biblical figure. The parallels between her origin and the story of Moses are quite prevalent. She was pulled out of a basket in the water by Helen. By having the markings on her back she becomes the key to finding the promised land. If the Deacon represents everything that is wrong with religion, Enola is everything that is right and good.
Funny you should mention Moses and the Biblical implications of Waterworld. The entire theme of the search for the Promised Land certainly has an Old Testament feel to it. The film as a whole is a modern parable, a New Testament for a New World, another era. It’s a Kafka-esque glimpse of the future, displaying the best and worst of humanity (or rather, fishmanity). At its core, Waterworld is a quest narrative; the stock story of the lonely hero who must save the last hope for humanity and guide the people toward a bright future. There is a transformation in the character of the Mariner, despite how borderline abusive he may be in the early acts of the film (as Dan so abundantly pointed out). It is through human connection that he is changed. He begins to understand that he is not the only outsider in the world, not the only lonely, tormented soul. His connection with Enola forces him to come out of his shell and begin to care about those around him, instead of just himself. His romance with Helen is a different story (after all, just think about what he can do with those webbed feet). Though they apparently make love once, they do not seem continue this relationship any further than a desperate fuck because they thought they were going to die. To sacrifice a sexual relationship in favour of a seven-year-old girl begs the question: how strong are the pedophilic undertones in the film? Granted she is an allegory and the Mariner is in fact striving toward hope, but taking Enola purely as a character, it is slightly disturbing that he would give his life to save her when he is willing to trade Helen’s body for some bits of paper. Far-fetched?
Yes, the human connection does end up changing him. However, I do not think that it is a sexual relationship with Enola. Instead the Mariner finds himself with something that he has never really had before: a family. Helen in a way becomes his wife while Enola is his daughter. It does not matter that none of them are related, it is the closest he has ever had to having someone to care about. This is the reason that he is willing to sacrifice his own life in order to bring back Enola when the smokers kidnap her.
In the end it is his new-found need for family that truly drives him away. He claims that he is unaccustomed to dry land but he also mentions his gills. He claims that he was born to live on the water and there might be others that are like him. He decides to forsake his surrogate family in order to search for his real one. Remember, fish are people too and deserve a bit of happiness.
- Smoking will turn you into a mindless barbarian bent on destroying the planet.
- Little Girls and fish men have more in common than you’d think.
- Religious intolerance is always bad.
- Nothing is free in Waterworld.
- Big oil companies will destroy the planet.
- National Geographic is the greatest magazine ever created ever.
- Stop global warming. Because if we don’t, Kevin Costner will be forced to drift around the planet alone. With gills.