IMDB Synopsis: In a future where the polar ice-caps have melted and Earth is almost entirely submerged, a mutated mariner fights starvation and outlaw “smokers,” and reluctantly helps a woman and a young girl try to find dry land.
Director: Kevin Reynolds
Writers: Peter Rader, David Twohy
Stars: Kevin Costner, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Dennis Hopper
I am not ashamed that I love the movie Waterworld. I am also ashamed that I love Waterworld.
Sustainability-wise, it is a diamond mine. Another in the post-apocalyptic-world-after-man-has-destroyed-the-earth genre, Waterworld does not disappoint. It starts with our typical prologue for the genre – “The future. The polar icecaps have melted covering the earth with water. Those who survived have adapted to a new world.” Blahdy blahdy blah dy…. Soon, I imagine, we won’t need this trick.
Kevin Costner, who plays the Mariner – a mutant outsider with a heart of gold – has developed gills and webbed feet. This is our mostly consistent clue to how far into the future we have actually traveled – long enough for some human evolution. But also long enough for languages to merge (some speak PortuGreek), long enough for people to forget Climate Change and how it happened but not so long that they can’t cling to myths of a place called Dryland. It doesn’t quite make sense.
The earth, Mariner reminds them, wasn’t “created in a deluge, but was covered by one.” The more historic Bible myth seems to have survived and overtaken science in Waterworld. This hit home for sustainability in the political theater of today (I’m looking at you so-called Senator James Inhofe). The search for Dryland is, once again, our Return to Eden story.
Producer Costner’s lefty-leaning and relationship with oil-based disasters are well-known. His company Ocean Therapy (a seller of centrifuge-based oil-water separator technology he acquired from the US government for $24M – roughly what Waterworld made its opening weekend) sold a machine that promised to clean up BP’s Deep Horizon disaster. It was a perfect publicity stunt for Waterworld five years too late.19
Waterworld’s big reveal revolves around another real-life oil spill – the Exxon Valdez (1989) – the oil tanker that ran aground spilling 10.8 mil lion gallons of the “black stuff” along the coast of Alaska, inciting little eco-punks like me to urge my Mom to cut up her Exxon gas cards. She did, I was 18.
Deacon (Dennis Hopper) a high priest of the “black stuff” often refers to “the Deez” throughout the first half of the movie as a kind of henchman headquarters. It is not until the final moments of the film that we are let in on the all too obvious gag as the tanker sinks and we see the name of the ship across the stern. It is true that Hopper does a great job of channeling Robert Duvall from Apocalypse Now “we’ll have this atoll in no time.”
In real life, the one-two punch of the Valdez and Deep Water Horizon were not enough to knock out big oil for many reasons. Waterworld explores that reason – corruption. Director Kevin Reynolds leans hard on this perception. Deacon’s henchmen are like a combination of filthy coal miners (not the hot models from GE’s Ecomagination “Clean Coal” campaign of 2005) and asshole frat boys on jet skis. An interesting connection here is that GE spent $90M on the Ecomagination campaign and also, at one time, owned part of NBC Universal (then just Universal) – one of the production companies behind the movie. Alex Jones could create an amazing conspiracy theory with just these threads alone. I cannot.
The henchmen often refer to each other as “cousins” which plays into the concept of a dwindling population and the very real possibility of in-breeding, again the specter of mutations is toyed with. Lineage is playing a role here as the film’s true hero is revealed to be a little girl named Enola (Tina Majorino). Enola is Native American for “Solitary.” Waterworld is leaning pretty heavy on the child-as-hope trope that modern sustainability loves to toy with.
A tattoo on Enola’s back is claimed to be a map to Dryland (Eden). Enola draws trees that have not been seen in theoretically thousands of years all over the Mariner’s awesome trimaran. Paper has an extremely high value as a relic from the past on which to capture stories – through there is little indication that the written language is still available. These moments of art-memory-history are like a kind of imagined sustain ability Report pointing backwards as a way to promise a better future. That’s what they are today. “ Look at this [watch]. It’s worthless – ten dollars from a vendor in the street. But I take it, I bury it in the sand for a thousand years, it becomes priceless.” said Belloq in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Same for paper and soil in Waterworld, it holds amazing powers of currency. Marshal McLuhan said “what is current creates currency,” but post apocalypse, relics of survival supporting a myth have more value. I think of Sustainability Reports as a fossil record, layers upon layers revealing a march to end of days or salvation.20
In Waterworld, Deacon assumes the role of priest. He feeds his “cousins” (SPAM – still around thousands of years later), prosthelytizes about Dry land, explains it all through Visions accessible only to him (of course he has recently lost one eye, so….) And he assumes the position of a kind of Priest of Big Oil as he says, “Growth is Progress, Growth is Progress.” This is not only the ideology of Big Oil, it is also the ideology of the cancer cell according to Ed Abbey. Of course when it is time to move the Valdez to a new location, out come the slave oars.
Deacon stands in front of a portrait of Captain Joseph Hazelwood who serves as a kind of patron saint of Oil. Later, he pours one out for his dead homie (where did he get Jack Daniels?) on the deck of the Valdez (Hazelwood was cleared of the charge of being intoxicated when the Valdez crashed, fined $50,000 and assigned 1,000 of community service. The misdemeanor of “negligent discharge of oil” is perhaps one of the greatest misrepresentations of a crime ever). Dark stuff in this Mad Max on the water movie where the last remnants of Big Oil are still corrupt ing and applying toward pressure on the planet. Reminiscing, Deacon says “we should have kept the oil, we should have kept the oil.” No, wait. That was Trump at the Memorial Wall of Agency Heroes at Langley.
If there is a bright-side inside of Waterworld it is not that they find Dryland. It is that people have finally started to recycle more. Or, rather people are recycled more. At funeral while dumping a body into brine, a priest recites this eulogy:
“Bones to berries. Veins to vines. His tendons to trees. His blood to brine.”
This is Will McDonough’s Cradle to Cradle (ashes to ashes). This is the Circular Economy. But, of course, for them it is far too late. When it’s called “survival,” it’s too late.
Near the end of the movie the Mariner stands on the deck of the Valdez holding a lit flair over an open hole leading to the belly of the tanker and the last 4 feet of oil anywhere. An old man who tends the oil, sits in a rowboat down below. Again, he reminds me of a coal miner or senator, trapped in a lie about the promise of fossil fuels. Hang in there, old man. The Mariner drops the flair, and as the old man watches it drop into the black stuff and the explosion begins he says, “Oh, thank God.”
The end of oil, and his sweet release.
Though 10 years before the Horizon disaster, the movie’s tagline holds new meaning. “Beyond the horizon lies the secret to a new beginning.” Maybe.
19 Fun fact: Costner was sued by Stephen Baldwin – the Christian Evangelist Baldwin Brother – for fraud over this business. Despite Baldwin’s close connection to a higher power, he received no money from the lawsuit.
20 I’m beginning to think more about the intersection of religion and sustainability. They both tend to rely on strikingly similar archetypes, mythos and symbolism. This could also just be pop culture messing with the signals, but it is something that I want to continue to explore. If you have any ideas, email me [email protected]