The Case for Remaking Waterworld

Though box office bombs come and go, some live on in infamy. Kevin Reynolds’ post-apocalyptic action flick Waterworld holds the usual traits of other bombs — big stars, questionable creative decisions and performances — except pitched to eleven. Conceptually based upon the catastrophic extremes of global warming and decorated by spectacle, the adventure made a bid for political relevance as a cultural flashpoint, while roping in one of Hollywood’s biggest stars, Kevin Costner, when the actor could do no wrong at the box office. Twenty-five years later, the disastrous Waterworld is primed for a remake. 

Set in the year 2500, and beset by a planet covered in water after the melting of the polar ice caps, humans cling to life in a barely hospitable world. They live on floating slums known as atolls, bartering for trinkets brought by mariners who spend months at sea troving for them (and food). Here, any scrap of paper, any mirror or antique from the old world of land, possesses value. But the highest commodity is dirt, and one day a nameless mariner (Kevin Costner) — following in the Western tradition of the Man With No Name — brings the priceless planetary heirloom to the atoll to trade. Unfortunately, the humans discover his mutation: He has gills and webbed feet, allowing him to breathe and swim underwater. Though they capture and attempt to execute him, he escapes with mother Helen (Jeanne Tripplehorn) and her daughter Enola (Tina Majorino), who purportedly has a map tattooed on her back leading to the fabled “Dryland.” Stalked by the maniacal Deacon (Dennis Hopper) on their journey to Dryland by boat, they’re tracked by a band of jet-ski pirates out to kidnap Enola so his competing atoll might find Dryland first. 

Waterworld features a tyrannical villain, pirates, comedy, Western tropes, environmental politics, big stars, and even bigger action sequences, while faltering due to the white savior trope, a hokey script, and questionable gender politics. It’s a relic of the ‘90s, crafted for white male audiences. Twenty-five years later, with the rise of representational cinema, Waterworld is primed for a modern diverse reimagining.  

This reimagining begins with a woman director. Reynolds’ Waterworld suffers from the male gaze and uneasy gender politics, as Helen dons a tight and revealing dress and either offers herself for sex to the mariner to protect Enola, or is bartered by the mariner for tradable goods. Worst yet, her actions (like shooting a plane down with a harpoon, thereby wrecking the mariner’s boat) are portrayed as impulsive. Helen often occupies the bimbo trope; her only asset to the men around her are her looks, and she’s perpetually positioned as a brainless obstacle in the way of the savvy mariner. Finding a woman director or screenwriter, or both, would negate this. And with Cathy Yan, Patty Jenkins, Anna Boden, and Niki Caro now helming big budget films, a precedent now exists, absent in  the ‘90s, for women to helm blockbusters.

A white man as the persecuted Other never made much sense, unless you consider that being the Other is the apocalypse for a white man. Insead, Costner’s mariner — along with Helen and Enola — should be recast with BIPOC actors. If studios want to lean into the Man With No Name Trope, and the other Western genre characteristics inherent in the original Waterworld, Oscar Isaac would fit perfectly due to his experience as Poe Dameron, a fighter pilot who takes clear inspiration from the itchy trigger finger gunmen of western lore. Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, star of Nia DaCosta’s Candyman, also fits the build and silent charisma of Costner’s mariner, as evidenced by Abdul-Mateen’s turn as Dr. Manhattan in Watchmen. To avoid colorism, a major prejudice in Hollywood where only light-skinned Black actors portray heroes and leads, a dark-skinned Black actress should play Helen, or could portray the mariner, too. Kiki Layne in The Old Guard and Lupita Nyong’o and Danai Gurira in Black Panther have proven action chops,while Jodie Turner-Smith and Cynthia Erivo in Queen & Slim and Widows, respectively, have played outlaws, too.

Reynolds’ Waterworld also suffers from ugly portrayals of Asians. For instance, the atoll initially suspects the mariner’s deformity after he refuses the request by a group of Asian men, the few people of color in the film, to mate with their young teenage niece. The enclave suffers from incest and they need new genes outside of their own. They even quip that you can tell their resemblance, which leans into the “all Asians look alike” stereotype. Moreover, Enola — a white girl — carries a tattooed map on her back leading to a paradise written in Chinese. With three white leads searching for the last speck of unclaimed land, Waterworld reeks of appropriation and a re-establishing of Manifest Destiny. Therefore, either Enola should be played by an Asian girl, or the map rewritten in another language, though an Asian lead sounds far more exciting. With an eye toward representational casting, the film’s glaring flaw would become strengths, especially when considering the villainous Deacon. 

Played by Dennis Hopper, Deacon helms an atoll based on the formerly named Exxon Valdez, a real-life tanker which led to one of the largest oil spills in history in 1989. Like the mariner’s allegorical name, Deacon leads a fanatical group of followers with Evangelical zeal. He delivers daily proclamations, showers them with cans of spam, and offers protection. Claiming to experience prescient visions, he promises to deliver them to Dryland even while they grow restless. To deliver his promise, his gang of marauding ski-jet pirates scours the earth looking for Enola. Hopper takes a cartoonish madman and transforms Deacon into an unruly psychopath. In a remake with a BIPOC cast, the character of Deacon would gain the additional layer of a white colonizer enacting violence to attain new land and resources by exacting his gains from BIPOC.

If studios want proof of the viability of representational post-apocalyptic films, they need only look so far as Mad Max: Fury Road. The dystopian flick made large profits at the box office by reimagining an established property to reflect its audience. By recentering Furiosa (Charlize Theron) as the lead, rather than Max, along with a bevy of women in the supporting cast, the film tapped into a still-present thirst for representational cinema. 

Beyond the cast, the environmental message at the heart of Waterworld plays stronger today. In a 1997 CBS poll, two years after  the release of Waterworld, 35% of Americans reported not reading anything about Global Warming. That same year, Gallup also discovered 97% of Americans knew “very little” about Global Warming. Conversely, in 2019, Gallup found that 44% of American worry about Global Warming, and 66% say the rise in greenhouse gases stems from human activity. In 1995, Waterworld felt fantastical, which matched the film’s tone as a campy swashbuckling romp adorned with Mad Max-inspired villains pitched to a bedazzled costume extreme. Given the seriousness of the film’s central conceit — an apocalyptic future replete with pirates and starvation — the campiness never integrated easily. If reimagined as a serious adventure with splashes of comedy rather than a gag with hints of seriousness, Waterworld today would surely discover fertile ground by way of modern audience’s ironic sense of humor and awareness of Global Warming.

The name “Waterworld” holds greater public appeal, too. Not just an infamous blockbuster bomb, Universal studios retrofitted the flick into several theme parks around the world, from Hollywood to Tokyo and Singapore negating the problem most failed films hold: They’re either unknown, or their recognition solely exists under the guise of their failure. With a generation now in adulthood who either recognize the film’s name as that campy adventure flick or by its namesake theme park, and have grown to fear Global Warming and welcome representational blockbusters, Waterworld is prime for a remake. 

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