'Waterworld': It Floats

Waterworld is a pretty damn good summer movie.

There, I've said it.

The world, and Universal Pictures, can take a deep breath. The most expensive movie ever made-estimates range from $172 million to $200 million -- is actually fun. And "fun," Lord knows, is the bottom line of that corporate invention known as the summer movie-a concept, like cyberspace, we didn't ask for, but which has become a permanent part of the American landscape.

"Waterworld," as you may have heard, has no landscape. It is set far in the post-apocalyptic future, after the polar caps have melted, burying the world as we know it under water and turning the horizon into an unending scape of sea. The survivors, floating on man-made atolls or navigating on boats, have become desperate scavengers, bartering and sometimes killing each other to obtain whatever meager detritus of the old world they can find. In Waterworld, pure dirt is as good as gold. This funky, rusty, dystopian vision will be instantly recognizable as a descendant of the junk-pile futurism of the "Mad Max" series.

But director Kevin Reynolds has found a jaunty, comic-book epic tone he can call his own, however derivative the elements. From our first glimpse of the hero (Kevin Costner), a strong, grouchy, silent type known as the Mariner, the movie lets us know it possesses some convention-tweaking wit. Shot from behind at a heroic low angle, the Mariner's first act is to piss in a plastic pot. He funnels the liquid through a Rube Goldbergish contraption, fills his mug with his purified urine and takes a swig. I'll take my hat off to any $200 million movie that gives me that for openers.

The Mariner sails his souped-up trimaran (a wonderful creation, this boat) into a floating city that is one of production designer Dennis Gassner's triumphs. (This fortresslike slag heap, built out of 1,000 tons of steel, alone cost a reported $5 million; it had to be rotated in the seas off Hawaii so that, from whatever angle a scene was shot, no glimpse of land appeared in the background.) Here Reynolds stages the first of "Waterworld's" several nifty action set pieces. The local Atollers are about to put Costner to death, thinking he's a spy, when they're attacked by the movie's piratical villains, the Smokers, led by the scurvy, baldpated Dennis Hopper. Leaping over the city's parapets on water skis, the Smokers have a wild arsenal of makeshift weapons at their command. Rescued by Atoll dweller Helen (Jeanne Tripplehorn) and her adopted daughter Enola (Tina Majorino), Cost-net must flee the besieged city with girl and woman in tow, while using his trusty harpoon gun to turn the attacking Smoker guns back on themselves.

It's a fiendishly complicated action sequence that Reynolds choreographs with real flair -- unlike, say, the incoherent mayhem in "Batman Forever." That squalling summer cartoon quickly grew tedious it was always in your face -- but "Water-world" doesn't wear out its welcome. It's well paced, and it never feels cluttered, no small thanks to the sea itself, which gives the story vast, gorgeous room to breathe.

The story is simple enough, really. Little Enola has a map tattooed on her back, which some believe can lead them to Dry.land. But no one can decode it, The Smokers (who always have cigarettes dangling from their lips) want to get their hands on the gift -- and get revenge on the Mariner. Will he, Helen, and Enola make it alive to Dryland -- if it exists?

Now, "Waterworld" is not a tale one wants to examine too closely. Presumably it is set very far in the future, for the Mariner has had time to actually mutate into a new species -- he's got webbed feet and little gills behind his ears. (Boy, can this guy swim!) But I kept thinking the Smokers' prediluvian cigarettes must be getting mighty stale by now. And what about those vintage airplanes that keep appearing? How are they still flying? But there's really no point in pursuing such questions: you'll have a much better time if you just play by the story's dotty rules.

No spark: Some weaknesses are not so easy to overlook. The screenwriters (Peter Rader and David Twohy get the credit, though other hands were involved) come up with some fairly hip satirical notions, but their heroine, Helen, is unaccountably lame, a throwback damsel who's semi-help-less in distress. Tripplehorn can't do a thing with the part, and the romantic spark be-tween her and Costner is all wet. The more satistying love story is the paternal one between Costner and Majorino, at 10 already a delightfully accomplished scene stealer. Though kids will probably love the comically scurrilous villains, who come on like a pack of over-the-hill bikers, this trope is getting pretty threadbare. And casting Hopper as a cracker Napoleon who rants about "manifest destiny" doesn't show much imagination. He could do wild-eyed megalomania in his sleep, and if he does it one more time, we'll all be dozing.

Costner has long since mastered the movie-star art of making a little go a long way. Beyond taciturn, his Mariner is a moody, uncivilized, selfish s.o.b., who tosses kids in shark-infested waters, thwacks his leading lady with an oar and barters her body to a popeyed, cuckoo scavenger for a few pieces of paper. The drollery of Costner's performance is his dare that we will fall for this brooding lout, which of course we do. His cool, collected charisma is always on the edge of clumsy, but it's real, and it works.

As does "Waterworld." It's not a great, edge-of-your seat action movie: for sheer kinetic excitement, Reynolds isn't in the same class as George ("The Boad Warrior") Miller or James ("Terminator 2") Cameron. But it's a breezy, clever entertainment with stirring effects. The public, thanks to the media, knows just what hell it took to get this water-bedeviled adventure onto the screen: the 166-day shoot, a near-fatal accident, sinking sets, last-minute reshoots and the feud between director and star. The nice thing is that the movie itself doesn't show the signs of flop sweat and panic. It wants to give us a good time, and, by and large, it does just that.

Should we care that MCA/Universal was wacky enough to spend this kind of money (more, for what it's worth, than the entire budget of the National Endowment for the Arts)? The movie will practically have to break records just to break even. Sure, it's profligate, but it's not taxpayers' money. And the ramifications of the "Waterworld" affair are nothing compared with the fallout that accompanied the runaway budgets of "Heaven's Gate" and "Cleopatra." MCA, recently purchased by Seagram from Matsushita, is still sitting pretty, and its new owners have cleverly managed to unload the bulk of the movie's cost onto the Japanese. In contrast, Cimino's Western brought down United Artists, and the "Cleopatra" fiasco literally changed the face of Los Angeles. Right next to Beverly Hills sit the gleaming towers of Century City, built on what was once the back lot of 20th Century-Fox, and sold off by the studio to pay off its massive "Cleopatra" bills. Now those are consequences. There's only one sure lesson Hollywood will take from the money pit that was "Waterworld": only shoot movies when there's dirt under your feet.