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In the early 90s, Kevin Costner could do no wrong. His epic Dances With Wolves instantly put the actor-turned-director, on a pedestal in Hollywood. While it received with moderate reviews it broke big at the box office. In 1991, Dances With Wolves scooped seven Oscars at the Academy Awards, including Best Writing, Adapted Screenplay, Best Director for Costner, and the pivotal Best Picture of the Year. This quickly made Kevin Costner the name into a brand.
Costner followed up Dances With Wolves with acting hits Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves, JFK , The Bodyguard, and A Perfect World. With the exception of Wyatt Earp, it felt that Costner had that cinematic, midas touch. So when an actor amounts that much acclaim, his fall from grace would become the media’s wet dream. Within four years of that Oscar winning Dances With Wolves, the wheels came off his creative flair through a mammoth box office failure. The cause was Waterworld.
Early in 1994, news filtered through the press surrounding the multi-million dollar production taking place in the Pacific Ocean. Already titled as Waterworld, the news of rising budgets and Costner’s overpowering need to control the movie’s direction became fodder for those who hated his previous success. The official listed director Kevin Reynolds reportedly was so frustrated with the actor, he quit the film before its release. What made greater headlines was the fact the whole set collapsed during a hurricane, and Costner himself nearly died during a squall.
Due to all these setbacks, Waterworld became the most expensive movie up to that date. The budget spiralled from 100 million dollars, to 135 million, finally estimated at 175 million finishing costs. Before the film would hit cinemas, word had already spread that Waterworld would not reap back its budget. With that news the vultures began to circle over Costner.
Released in July 1995, Waterworld is essentially Mad Max on water. However, it’s less like the original 1979 revenge classic and more like Beyond Thunderdome. Set in a post apocalyptic world where the polar ice caps have melted, the world is now one gigantic ocean. The legend of ‘dry land’, can only be found by a map, tattooed on a child’s back.
This young girl, Enola (Tina Majorino), is hunted by a band of chain smoking pirates, led by an over-the-top Dennis Hopper as the Deacon. Both Enola and her guardian Helen (Jeanne Tripplehorn) seek help from a trader called the Mariner (Costner) to help them escape the Smokers. The Mariner is a drifter, an outcast from the floating villages, and also a mutant, who possesses both gills and webbed feet. As he changes from the selfish loner to the saviour and finds direction in his life, he battles against the Smokers. When Enola is captured and held onboard the Smokers’ floating fortress, it is solely up to the Mariner to come to the rescue.
This is also a story driven by the need for oil – another similarity to Mad Max. It is the cause of the Smokers’ undoing as Costner’s character drops a flare into their oil supply. This blows up their reason for existence and enables him to escape with Enola and Helen. The Mariner also manages to decipher the map, leading them to the coveted dry land (top of Everest). But as a mutant, The Mariner cannot stay as he is a part of the ocean and mutated to adapt. And so rides off into the sunset alone again.
It is a pity how much criticism both Waterworld and Costner faced prior to its release. There is much to celebrate: Waterworld turned out to be visually stunning. Filmed against the blue skies, the blue ocean, on a cinema screen it is undeniably striking. Within minimalistic sets, the use of jet skis and the action sequences are explosive, and the ultra-cool Mariner trimaran vessel is something special. Kevin Costner fit perfectly the moody guise of the Mariner, and Hopper’s cartoonish Deacon provides some tongue-in-cheek entertainment. Marking as it does the turning point in his career, Costner’s fall from grace was both unfair and cruel.
Post-Waterworld, Costner appeared in the low-budget ‘rom-com’ Tin Cup which faired better at the box office, and received positive reviews. After that experience, one might think the actor/director would consider getting his teeth into a more refined role. Considering the 90s were the decade of intelligent scripts, and the rise of the Tarantino style (Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown) outing, there was a shift away from action as entertainment.
Instead, things went from bad to worse. Costner’s next full-scale project, The Postman, bombed both commercially, and with critics who were scathing. Again set in a post-apocalyptic world, the story follows a drifter who tries to change society by impersonating a postman. It was so bad, Costner won three Golden Raspberry Awards, worst director, worst actor and worst film. A complete mirror image of the Academy Awards only six years prior. It would seem that big budget outings are the curse of Kevin Costner. Following The Postman, it was six years before he would direct a movie again, a low-budget western called Open Range. This film was a commercial and critical success, and his last directorial effort since.