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This is part 4 in a series in which, for reasons not really clear, I watch all watchable movies with Kevin Costner. And maybe even some unwatchable ones. I will then comment on them here for you, including a synopsis in case you aren't familiar with them.
Synopsis: After the polar ice caps melted, the whole world is covered in water. The few survivors roughly divide between the inhabitants of artificial atolls, the nomadic Drifters and the ravenous Smokers. The unnamed Mariner, played by Costner, arrives at an Atoll only to be found out as a mutant who can breathe under water. His execution is short-circuited by an attack of the Smokers, who want to get their hands on a girl on whose back there's a tattoo allegedly showing the path to the fabled Dryland. Against his preferences, the lonely Mariner comes to care for the girl and her adoptive mom and protects them against the Smokers.
Analysis: This movie was made on the height of Costner's fame, and it was a legendarily troubled production. Costs exploded, disasters happened. Shooting on open water is always extremely problematic and dangerous, and this movie is shot completely outside of the view of land. It's ambitious, it's what I'm saying, and while the whole worldbuilding doesn't make a lick of sense, it has a strong sense of place.
Unfortunately, this box office bomb is not exactly a hidden gem. It's easy to see even 25 years later why this movie wasn't received favorably. Let's tick some boxes.
First, there's the character of the Mariner himself, played by Costner. The man is just utterly unpleasant, threatening rape and murder several times until suddenly switching to a more generic hero/good guy persona after approximately two thirds of the movie. The man is simply unlikable, and the attempts to make him into a badass anti-hero - pretty much the id of a lot of the 1990s - fail miserably.
Second, there's the girl and her adoptive mother. The latter is a very bland, generic woman character. Her whole life's mission is to care for a girl (whereas the men kill or try to protect the helpless women) and she constantly tries to get Costner's Mariner to protect them and guide them to Dryland. The girl is obnoxious and first antagonizes the Mariner to the point where you agree wholeheartedly that she's in need of a spanking, and then suddenly switches to his biggest fan in the last third. None of these are really compelling, but for wide stretches of the movie, they're the only characters on screen.
Third, let's fear not, the other characters aren't better. The inhabitants of the Atoll are all repulsive and ugly and, above all, incredibly dumb. The script's attempts of making them into watery hillbillies isn't doing the story any favors, and this element did not age well at all.
Fourth, the Smokers themselves are cartoon villains. And I mean, Saturday Morning Cartoons. They're tripping over each other, falling down, giggling, saying stupid stuff and behaving like grown children. This might have been intended as a commentary on the society, but oh boy, does it not work. Look at Fury Road if you want to see this done well.
Fifth, the costumes. It's admirable how the movie tries to develop its distinctive look and to worldbuild the watery apocalypse, but the result is looking a lot like the camp of the Lost Kids from Hook (1991, and boy would that movie deserve its own entry here).
Sixth, and this is the biggest one, the tonal dissonance is just unbearable. All scenes with Costner's Mariner are typical post-apocalyptic fare. The world is a harsh and unjust place in which only the strong survive and real men control themselves and live for themselves. This leads to a lot of scenes in which the Mariner just comes off as an awful person.
However, whenever the evil Smokers are on screen, we're in the Saturday Morning Cartoon area I talked about, with Dennis Hopper as the chief evildoer chewing the scenery as if he's starring in Batman Forever (which coincidentally arrived the same year), which doesn't fit the attempt of gritty post-apocalypse.
The ending of the movie then comes fitting, as an unmotivated and rather stupid shoot-out on the old oil tanker the Smokers use as their base (which is a great idea!) leads to Hopper's character duking it out one on one with the Mariner and then a side-character discovers the secret to Dryland, they find it (it's Mount Everest, in a final gratuitous twist) and then the Mariner leaves because he's a man of the lonely high seas, you see.
The verdict: The first entry in this series that you really should not watch. It does not hold up, and it never was any good to begin with.