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At the Movies: ‘Waterworld’

July 27, 1995

One of the strongest indicators of a good action movie is the ability to snare an audience in the first 15 minutes and dazzle with a thrilling display or sizzling dialogue.

Kevin Costner’s ``Waterworld″ _ considered the most expensive film ever made, and one of the most problem-plagued, too _ does neither. Its opening serves only to introduce you to one of the most self-absorbed, embittered loners in the action hero legion. And unfortunately, the movie’s first real action sequence _ an attack by thugs riding jet skis _ offers little excitement.

This is not to say that the movie is a dud: ``Waterworld″ is merely harmless summer filler.

It is a dark and brooding vision, underscored by depressing sets and a drab world. It is as bleak as any vision seen by Mad Max. But it lacks the humor and ingenuity injected in the Road Warrior movies, and that’s one of the problems with ``Waterworld.″

Part of the charm of so many action flicks is the fun you have with the hero: Arnold, Mel, Bruce, Wesley _ they don’t take themselves too seriously and offer steady doses of wit.

Costner, however, is totally humorless and as dreary as the landscape he travels. And the uninspired and often inane dialogue in Peter Rader and David Twohy’s script doesn’t help.

The story is set sometime in the future after some unknown event or greed or stupidity lead to a Polar meltdown. Land masses are swallowed by the sea, and the Earth has become a place of endless water. Survivors live either by drifting in boats, or on jerry-built atolls.

They are threatened by food and fresh water shortages and the nasty Smokers _ a gang lead by Deacon (Dennis Hopper) that believes in polluting their bodies and everything else with smoke. They live on the rotting hull of the Exxon Valdez, using its last oil reserves to power their jet skis, seaplane and barge, smoking an endless chain of cigarettes along the way.

The Smokers and the survivors race to find ``dry land″ _ a mythical place where humans might once again walk the Earth. A map showing where this land might be is tattooed on the back of a child, Enola (Tina Majorino).

Caught in the middle is Mariner (Costner), a mutant human with gills and webbed feet. He seems to be the only one of his kind and no explanation is ever offered how he evolved.

Mariner wants to sail the ocean and enjoy his solitude.

But when he shows up at the atoll to trade a jug of dirt for other supplies, he’s condemned to death for being a mutant. Smokers attack the atoll just as Mariner is about to slip into a vat of slop for ``recycling.″ Enola and her adopted mother, Helen (Jeanne Tripplehorn), save his life, and the three escape on Mariner’s trimaran.

Mariner is not a likable hero. He’s a misogynist who believes that women should be quiet and sit still, and who’s willing to give Helen to a drifter for sex. Eventually, he’s won over by Enola and Helen and there’s a sweet scene in which he teaches the child how to swim.

The Smokers ultimately catch up to Mariner and abduct Enola, and a fiery climax is played out on the Exxon Valdez.

Given the expense of ``Waterworld″ _ an estimated $175 million _ the movie’s second unit work (the action shots) is surprisingly uninspired and ordinary. Most sequences are so layered and repetitious that stunts begin to blend. One effective scene, though, is when Helen harpoons a seaplane from the Mariner’s trimaran only to have the craft wrap itself around the boat’s mast.

But few of the action sequences measure up to other summer adventures such as Bruce Willis surfing on a truck in ``Die Hard With a Vengeance,″ or the more subtle thrills of ``Apollo 13.″

Hopper, everybody’s favorite bad boy, gets the best lines _ he calls Mariner ``the gentleman guppy.″ With his bald pate and mutilated eye, his Deacon is not entirely over the top but close to the perimeter.

Tina Majorino is adorable and feisty _ she’s not afraid of anyone and strongly believes in the goodness of Mariner. Tripplehorn works within the boundaries of her character and gives a tepid performance.

Costner, whose last three movies flopped, produced ``Waterworld″ with Charles Gordon and John Davis. Executive producers for the Universal Pictures release were Jeffrey Mueller, Andrew Licht and Ilona Herzberg. Kevin Reynolds is credited as director. ``Waterworld″ is rated PG-13, for violence, nudity and language.

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Motion Picture Association of America rating definitions:

G _ General audiences. All ages admitted.

PG _ Parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.

PG-13 _ Special parental guidance strongly suggested for children under 13. Some material may be inappropriate for young children.

R _ Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.

NC-17 _ No one under 17 admitted.