Release Date(s)1995 (June 27, 2023)
Studio(s)Universal Pictures (Arrow Video)
- Film/Program Grade: A-
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: A+
- Extras Grade: A
Several years before going in front of the cameras, hampered by media scrutiny at every turn, and released in a mostly true to the director’s vision version, Waterworld was all set to either be one of the biggest box office hits of 1995 or a major financial flop. Managing to make its money back with a little leftover, it certainly didn’t light the world of entertainment on fire when it finally debuted. As one of the most expensive films ever made at the time and with rumors of disharmony between its star Kevin Costner and its director Kevin Reynolds, not to mention the multiple allegations made by the media of catastrophic production woes, just getting the film finished and in front of audiences must have been a monumental task.
The premise is simple: in the future, the polar ice caps have melted and covered the Earth entirely with water. The people leftover are survivors of different factions, including drifters like the nameless Mariner (Costner). Finding himself saddled with a young girl named Enola (Tina Majorino) who has a tattoo on her back that’s rumored to be a potential map to mythical dry land, as well as her fiercely protective guardian Helen (Jeanne Tripplehorn), this mismatched set of survivors find themselves the targets of a ruthless gang of pillagers called Smokers, led by the Deacon (Dennis Hopper). As they attempt to evade them, it becomes abundantly clear that the Mariner must set aside his own selfish ways, stop the Smokers from acquiring the young girl, and lead them and the other survivors all safely to dry land—if it even exists.
Having not seen Waterworld in quite a number of years, I’m amazed at just how much I remember of it. Lines and moments came to me quickly as they were happening, which showed just how much of an impression it made on me. On the other hand, I didn’t take into account how blown away by the film I would be all over again. Many films of its ilk that try hard to overcome limitations are almost always destined to fail, either by poor decisions, a lack of budget, or unsuccessful distribution and marketing. That wasn’t the case with Waterworld. It’s amazing that not only is it supremely entertaining, but that it makes any sense at all. It’s extremely stylish, mostly well-paced, and awe-inspiring in a way that large scale swords-and-sandals and pirate epics used to be.
I love everything about the look of this film. Miles of deep blue ocean mixed with cyberpunk type technology, in an almost Swiss Family Robinson manner, as well as the makeshift floating cities called atolls, which have been fashioned together over time using ships and found objects. Then there’s the Mariner’s ship. It’s so cool that it makes you want to take up boating almost immediately. Nothing looks like as much fun as his trimaran, which is armed with nearly everything he needs in order to survive and protect himself, in an almost Batman TV show like way.
Waterworld also has my money based solely upon the sheer scale of it. I know full and well that even if the polar ice caps did melt that the Earth wouldn’t be entirely covered in water, and that it would likely affect the planet’s weather patterns and ability to breathe astronomically, but that’s not the point. The point, as in so many Mad Max sequels, is that we’re presented with a world stripped of everything but primal instinct. Dennis Hopper’s character in particular is justifiably one end of the survivor spectrum. He’s willing to do anything and hurt anybody in order to get what he wants, while Costner’s character wants nothing more than to be left alone and seek out the bare minimum of what he needs to continue in solitude. In fact, his curiosity about what’s below the water’s surface is ultimately what leads to the invasion of his privacy.
You also have to give enormous credit to Costner himself. He’s pretty much the beginning and end of the production, and the amount of physical work that he does in the film is phenomenal. Jumping around on metal surfaces in nearly bare feet, performing many of his own stunts, he really delivers the goods and then some. However, the other characters in the film aren’t quite as interesting, including Jeanne Tripplehorn’s Helen and Tina Majorino’s Enola. Both deliver good, competent performances, but they feel a little more two-dimensional by comparison, as do all of the side characters for that matter.
Above all else, Waterworld is a marvel. It’s pure entertainment, on a scale that’s rarely been rivaled in the years since. It may have moments that drag in the story, such as much of the journey between the Mariner, Helen, and Enola, and an ending that pretty much nullifies the film’s title, but it doesn’t matter. The action set pieces, the score, the look, and the world are so well-realized that I can forgive its shortcomings.
As for as the alternative versions of the film, the TV and the “Ulysses” cuts, which run over 40 minutes longer, are virtually identical aside from the TV cut’s obvious omissions, mostly due to language, but also a scene in which the Deacon offers Enola a cigarette. Most of it is scene extensions rather than full-blown deleted scenes, adding more meat to an already healthy body.
There are also additional moments on the atoll, including Helen attempting to appeal to the elders and receiving possible threats; Gregor trying to decipher the map on Enola’s back; more interplay between the Mariner, Helen, and Enola on the trimaran; more moments with the Deacon and the Smokers, including additional dialogue with Jack Black as the plane’s pilot; more development of the Mariner’s and Helen’s relationship; more of the Mariner saving Enola aboard the Exxon Valdez; and a slightly extended ending in which the Ulysses cut earns its moniker.
The biggest addition and change is when the Mariner, Helen, and Gregor take up with the atoll survivors and the Mariner selfishly decides to leave them behind, only to have a change of heart and return to inform them that he’s decided to save Enola after all. A lot of this is ironed out and simplified in the theatrical cut and, frankly, feels forced and out of place since the Mariner and Enola have already developed a bit of a bond for each other at this point. Unsurprisingly, most of the additions are better left on the cutting room floor, but there are some nice nuggets scattered throughout that make the effort to watch worth it.
Waterworld was shot by cinematographer Dean Semler on 35 mm film with a variety of Panavision, Arriflex, Aaton, and Hydroflex cameras and assorted lenses, finished photochemically, and presented in the aspect ratio of 1.85:1. Arrow Video previously released a Limited Edition Blu-ray containing all three cuts of the film, and they’ve returned with a 3-Disc Ultra HD containing the same 4K restoration of the original camera negative, utilizing additional 35 mm intermediary elements for the TV and Ulysses cuts. Their new UHD contains the theatrical version only, graded for High Dynamic Range (HDR10 and Dolby Vision options are included) with the approval of Dean Semler. I can’s speak to Universal’s UHD release of the film simply because I don’t own it, but judging from screencaps, it’s clear that it’s different in terms of color and contrast. One could also venture to guess that Dean Semler wasn’t given the opportunity to oversee that release, meaning that Arrow’s UHD is the more definitive of the two.
That all said, this is a lovely presentation with careful encoding by the great David Mackenzie of Fidelity in Motion. Bitrates primarily sit in the 80 to 90mbps range, dropping only on screens with less detail to showcase. It’s a very clean and stable presentation with nary a speck of damage leftover. The film contains a number of opticals, composites, and occasionally CGI-based visual effects, and there’s definitely a softness surrounding that material, but all of it appears organic to its source. There are enormous levels of fine detail on display, from the open ocean vistas to the most intricate of detail on the atoll, as well as the grit and grime of characters’ faces and clothing. The new HDR grades really push the detail found in the color palette. Oceans are blue but not artificial, with browns and tans dominating elsewhere. The lush greens found at the end of the film are also impressive. Flesh tones retain their highly-tanned appearance, and blacks are much deeper and more solid with high levels of shadow detail. Caveats aside, the film looks like it was shot yesterday. It’s beautiful.
The TV and Ulysses cuts are included on the accompanying Blu-rays. They feature much of the same qualities, but with some unavoidable drawbacks. To be honest, there’s not much of a difference between the additional footage and the theatrical footage as it’s all quite seamless, but there are moments wherein a couple of lower grade shots in the latter half of the film had to be utilized, which are far more grainy and less detailed-oriented. There’s also a couple of instances where high quality footage couldn’t be found and low resolution elements had to be inserted to complete the cuts, as well as an apparently irreparable fade-out halfway through. However, all of these moments are minor and only add up to about 20-30 seconds of total running time.
The audio for all of three versions is featured in both English 5.1 and 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio with optional subtitles in English SDH. The theatrical version contains a new Dolby Atmos mix, which is 7.1 Dolby TrueHD compatible. Universal’s UHD contained a DTS:X mix, which hasn’t carried over here. Not that it’s missed because the new Dolby Atmos Mix retains the finest qualities of the film’s surround experience, with additional height during some of the more explosive sequences, but never straying from the original sound design. It’s a powerhouse track. The 5.1 experience is still strong and immersive with plenty of ambient activity and foley placement. Dialogue is clear at all times and the score, though somewhat intrusive in some scenes in the TV and Ulysses cuts, comes through with great clarity. The 2.0 track is much of the same, just with less channels to work with. And while there isn’t an enormous difference in quality video wise, the audio is sometimes a bit of a giveaway as some of the dialogue and sound effects haven’t been given the same amount of fine treatment as those in the theatrical release, but you have to really pay attention to even notice. Regardless, the theatrical Atmos mix is a marked improvement, offering a totally bombastic and satisfying surround experience.
Waterworld on 4K UHD sits in a black amaray case alongside two 1080p Blu-rays containing the TV and Ulysses cuts, as well as 6 lobby card reproductions. Also included is a two-sided poster featuring artwork by Paul Shipper on one side and the original US theatrical art on the other, and a 58-page insert booklet with plenty of reading material, including In Search of Dry Land by David J. Moore; Storm Gathering, an interview with Kevin Costner from 1995 by Marc Shapiro; Taking the Plunge on Waterworld by Ron Magid; The Quest for Dry Land: Inside the Waterworld Computer Game, an interview with Michael Conti by Daniel Griffith; Water, Water, Everywhere: Merchandising Waterworld by Daniel Griffith; and restoration details. All of this is housed within slipcase packaging featuring the same Paul Shipper artwork. The following extras are included on first disc only, as discs one and two contain no extras:
- Maelstrom: The Odyssey of Waterworld (HD – 102:28)
- Dances with Waves (SD – 9:13)
- Global Warnings (HD – 22:21)
- Production Image Gallery: Concept Art (HD – 63 in all)
- Production Image Gallery: Production Stills (HD – 73 in all)
- Production Image Gallery: Behind the Scenes: Hawaii (HD – 35 in all)
- Production Image Gallery: Behind the Scenes: Los Angeles (HD – 23 in all)
- Production Image Gallery: Miniatures and Visual Effects (HD – 45 in all)
- Promotional Image Gallery (HD – 36 in all)
- Teaser (HD – 2:00)
- Trailer (HD – 2:15)
- TV Spots (Upscaled SD – 14 in all – 9:06)
The biggest and most important of these materials is a massive documentary about the making of the film by Ballyhoo Motion Pictures entitled Maelstrom: The Odyssey of Waterworld. It’s definitely a highlight, covering plenty of ground and talking to a variety of people involved with the production, including 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, pyrotechnician Gary D’Amico, special effects assistant Jeff Bresin, special effects manager Gabe Videla, miniature effects supervisor Mark Stetson, special effects technician Eric Allard, and film music journalist Tim Greiving. There’s also some archival interview snippets with Kevin Costner, Jeanne Tripplehorn, and Tina Majorino. In addition, there’s Dances with Waves, an archival featurette about the film; Global Warnings, a featurette with film critic Glenn Kenny speaking about end-of-the-world Hollywood blockbuster movies; six still galleries containing a total of 275 images of concept art, production stills, behind the scenes photos, posters, lobby cards, and other promotional materials; the film’s teaser and theatrical trailers; and 14 TV spots.
Arrow’s previous Blu-ray release of Waterworld was a massive upgrade, though many perceived Universal’s UHD as a quick cash-in with no substance. The Arrow UHD surpasses both of those releases, and while it’s a shame that the alternate cuts couldn’t somehow be included in Ultra HD as well, this is still the definitive release of Waterworld on home video. It may have had its detractors over the years, but that hasn’t kept legions of viewers from finding new things to appreciate about it. Highly recommended!
- Tim Salmons