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‘Waterworld’: Exploring the failure of the most expensive film of its time

I don’t think it’s any worse or any better than any other picture in its genre. It’s not awful.”
– Kevin Reynolds

The 1995 post-apocalyptic sci-fi film Waterworld is often referred to as a perfect example of what not to do with your resources when making a big-budget production. Based on a screenplay by the film’s co-writer Peter Rader, Waterworld envisions a distant future where the devastating effects of the Anthropocene have caused all the polar caps to melt which has contributed to a sea-level rise of 25,000 ft. Despite its interesting premise, the film’s theatrical release was underwhelming and a lot of the press attention it received was influenced by the fact that it was the most expensive film to have ever been made back then. Has time been kind to Waterworld or is it still the huge mistake that it was once thought to have been?

Initially conceived as a Mad Max rip-off, Rader replaced the arid wastelands of the iconic film with a completely different ecosystem but retained the post-apocalyptic motifs and the antihero trope. In other interviews, Rader also maintained that he was inspired by an eclectic mix of sources including the Old Testament and the story of Helen of Troy, rather than relying solely on the Mad Max story. He was dismissed by small studios because they estimated that a film like this would cost somewhere in the range of $3-5 million but they had no idea what was about to follow.

Rader floated the script around and eventually managed to catch the attention of a bigger production company who gave him money to start on the film right away. The company even signed a distribution deal with Universal Studios and agreed to a $30 million budget for Waterworld which could extend to a whopping $100 million. Although these numbers might not seem impressive now, especially because of the fact that such big-budget productions have become the norm, it was unheard of at that time and came with a great deal of weight attached.

It is also important to note that the way people experienced films was changing at that time. Since the late 1950s, old film theatres were being renovated to be turned into multiple screen venues and the 1990s saw a logical expansion of that. In order to release films at multiple venues at once and to make sure the maximum number of people see it, film theatres evolved into multiplexes and megaplexes which could hold multiple screenings simultaneously. This was the main reasoning behind the absurdly large budget of the film, to gain profits by capitalising on the intrigue surrounding the “most expensive film of all time” and push it onto as many people as possible.

Filmmaker Kevin Reynolds came on as the director of the project in 1992 and urged the studio not to hire actor Kevin Costner when the company began looking for a star attraction. Even though Reynolds and Costner had worked previously on three separate films, the filmmaker was unconvinced of his reliability after clashing with him on multiple occasions on the set of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991). However, in a twist of cruel irony, that film’s success with Costner as the lead would see the studio insist on having the actor come aboard.

Slowly but surely, the costs kept rising. Co-writer David Twohy handled some of the major rewrites of Rader’s original script and incorporated elements from Mad Max 2 which contributed to a $35 million increase in the film’s estimated budget. Additional and unnecessary costs were incurred when the studio insisted on maintaining the aura of a big-budget spectacle by filming it off the Hawaiian coast despite Spielberg warning Costner and Reynolds that his experience with filming in the ocean for Jaws (1975) was less than ideal. There were no bathrooms on set and the crew had to ferry themselves to shore every time they had to take a dump. Production kept stopping because they were filming during hurricane season, which naturally led to the destruction of the entire set on one occasion and cost half a million dollars. The location they used was also a very windy one, forcing retakes of shots which led to the wastage of both time and money on a surprisingly regular occurrence. What’s more, due to the extensive stunts used in the film, the second unit was an abnormally large one and the stuntmen kept getting stung by jellyfish. All in all, it was a nightmarish experience from an economical as well as a professional point of view.

Kevin Costner had a unique part to play in the unravelling of Waterworld. He started with a $14 million paycheque, stayed in a suite which cost the company $1800 per night and travelled to and from the set on an $800,000 yacht. When the production was finally complete, Reynolds released his cut of the film but Costner expressed his dislike for it and rewrote significant portions of the script, taking a lot of the creative control away from the director and the writers. Exasperated by Costner’s transgressions, Reynolds finally quit and let the star do whatever he wanted.

Joss Whedon was brought in to fix some of the horrendous writing but he claimed that the script was untouchable by that point. The screenplay was so bad that there was no water in the last 40 pages even though the setting for the film was literally an oceanic dystopia. Costner did away with most of the world-building and slow moments of the film that were essential to Reynolds’ initial vision, focusing only on the action parts and other “spectacular” shots.

The result was an incoherent mess which felt incomplete and tanked at the North American Box Office with a $88 million return on a $200 million budget. To Waterworld’s credit, it actually managed to profit by making $176 million at the foreign box office and subsequent home video releases, TV broadcasting and even video games, novelisations and comic books. Theme park attractions based on the film popped up in Los Angeles, Japan and Singapore, and they are still active today.

Many years later, ABC featured the director’s cut which was the 176-minute version, while censoring the graphic violence and the nudity. For those who managed to watch Reynolds’ original intention with the film, it was clear that his version of the film had a consistent artistic statement with adequate focus on character development and the unique world they inhabited. When Waterworld was finally released on DVD, it was Costner’s theatrical version that was burned on to the plastic but the studio relented and released the extended, censored director’s cut when the public demand for it was undeniable.

In an interview, Reynolds said, “There was just this feeding frenzy at the time. The press just suddenly decided it was more enjoyable to hate it than it was to like it. It was condemned before it was even finished. I guess it was the point in Costner’s career when they decided to take him off his pedestal. It was something that was out of control, it didn’t matter how good you made the picture.” It is unclear whether Waterworld failed because of the press’ obsessive fixation on its budget, Costner’s arrogance or the fact that the narrative was a derivative rehash of some actually brilliant sci-fi works. Maybe it’s a combination of all three. However, if it wasn’t lampooned with the “most expensive film of all time” tag, would Waterworld still be as bad as people remember it was?

Reynolds’ cut of the film has proven that it would indeed be a much better film and would probably be regarded in higher opinion. The shots of this oceanic planet that the script imagined are truly breathtaking and it is actually an entertaining post-apocalyptic flick. Yes, the performances aren’t the best, but the director’s cut makes up for it by making the world feel more alive and tangible. Maybe we will see a full restoration of Reynolds’ original vision someday, but for now, Costner’s massacre with the Waterworld footage is what defines the film’s unfortunate legacy.

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