The mariner (Kevin Costner) sails his way across the ocean, which now covers the face of the planet now that the polar ice caps have melted many years before. Yet rumours persist among the survivors clinging onto life that dry land still exists somewhere, and the mariner is one of those who capitalises on that belief by bringing objects - and dirt - from some mysterious location that apparently prove there is a place on Earth that is not under water. Today he meets a fellow sailor (Chaim Girafi) who is travelling in the opposite direction... too late the mariner realises he has stolen his limes - and the Smokers are on their way.
Waterworld has gone down in history as one of the biggest money losers in cinema, in spite of the fact that it did eventually make its money back thanks to non-American audiences making it the hit it was not in its native land. Actually, the reception it received was less a "Oh dear, what a terrible film" and more a "Well, it could have been worse", not a resounding endorsement, true, but it was by no means universally despised. Except, perhaps, by those who worked on it, as the production was blighted with setbacks and ill-feeling resulting from them, a mixture of lack of foresight when the idea of making a film set on the sea was proposed and a general umbrage about how everyone ended up being treated.
What had started out as a low budget David Twohy script, reportedly aimed at Roger Corman who cannily twigged that it might be beyond his (and a lot of other producers') means, wound up as the most expensive film ever made (until James Cameron happened along, that is), not only due to the scope of the story being opened up dramatically but down to the way ocean was a harsh mistress, especially when you want to shoot a blockbuster. So the sets were destroyed in a storm, and they had to wait for the right kind of conditions before the cameras could roll, and pretty much all the cast and crew were extremely pissed off, with director Kevin Reynolds falling out with old pal Costner and as some claimed walking off the production before it was completed.
Does any of this show in the final product? Surprisingly, no, as while the lead character is a grumpy so-and-so, that's entirely by design, and if anything there's an air of sweeping self-importance that is more likely to put off audiences rather than any behind the scenes horror stories. Waterworld, as it played out, definitely took itself seriously, yet there's something to admire in that, like a captain going down with his ship instead of nipping aboard the lifeboats with the women and children: you cannot say it did not have the courage of its convictions. Those principles were ecological in nature, as the bad guys, the Smokers, were the embodiment of all that was profligate and damaging to the environment in 1995, while our good guys were more eco-friendly.
Leading the Smokers was the one actor brightening up what constantly threatened to sink under the weight of its high-mindedness, Dennis Hopper as Deacon. He stops short of chewing the scenery, maybe because most of it was water and you can't chew liquid, but he did offer a performance that matched the epic scale that was being aspired to, and enlivened what was too often becoming one of the humourless Costner hero movies that the star had a habit of making. Meanwhile, Jeanne Tripplehorn glowered as the love interest, looking after the human McGuffin in the shape of Enola (Tina Majorino), a doodling moppet who has the co-ordinates to dry land tattooed on her back (I know it's wet, but was there something wrong with laminated card?). Where Waterworld really scored was with its design, with many a contraption keeping the visuals consistently interesting, and every so often a sequence which showed they were taking advantage of the concept, such as the undersea city bit. It was too heavy for its own good, and didn't make much sense once you stopped to ponders its illogicalities, but there was a curious dignity to the film, folly as it was. Music by James Newton Howard.