The nineties were the water decade. From the submarine turquoise of Nevermind’s front cover, to all those pop songs built around river and waterfall motifs, to the popularity of washy flanger and reverb FX in shoegaze (and grunge, trip-hop, Britpop, trance, dub-pop etc) the spirit of the decade – or its surface sound at least – was one of saturation and baggy, liberal fluidity. In no other decade would a novelty pop act have had the temerity to call itself simply: Aqua.
But when the nineties arrived, oceanic feeling descended. The big British cultural events of the period – Diana, Oasis, Blair – were all about loose, engulfing religiosity. Nebulous waves of collective hysteria were the new cultural norm. Sharp ideological edges were softened and blurred in the whirlpool of neoliberalism.
As such, the runaway success of Titanic in 1998 seems apt. But it pays to remember that the greatest filmic failure of the nineties was also a vast oceanic epic.
Where did Waterworld go wrong? Obviously partly because it wasn’t very good. But then neither was Titanic. Neither were the blockbuster sci-fi fantasy epics of the early noughties: The Fellowship of the Ring and Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (both, astonishingly, released just six years after WW in 2001, both monstrously successful).
How did Waterworld fail to capture the aquatic zeitgeist? Perhaps it was a case of being late to the late-capitalist party. Put another way: maybe Costner’s folly bombed because it clung to a modernist oceanic ethos when it should have offered a postmodernist one. The nineties’ obsession with H2O had a lot to do with excess and profusion in an economic boom time. Water was expressive of a newly swamped consumer culture, and a climate of overflowing hedonism and alcoholic indulgence. So it doesn’t quite fit that in Waterworld’s flooded planet plants are rare commodities and the people are gasping for lack of “pure hydro”.
This emphasis on scarcity and barrenness was a misjudged throwback to the austerity of the mid-twentieth century. And with hindsight, WW seems to have more in common with the dystopias of post-war sci-fi than with the hypertrophied CGI monsters of the post-LotR era. Yet even a post-war work like Ballard’s Drowned World (an obvious analogue) had the prescience to see that the future lay in foregrounding themes of over-abundance. In Ballard’s book, plant and animal life has reclaimed the earth, and the artefacts of capitalism are abundantly collectable. Danger lies in the primitive pull exerted by the jungle of objects – both the man-made relics and the wild intrusions of the organic world.
But in contrast to the seductive too-muchness of the Ballardian drowned world, the world inhabited by Costner’s “Mariner” (natch) is an obverse of the classic Eliotic wasteland. The ocean is a desert. Animal life has largely vanished. Objects of the pre-disaster world are rarely encountered. A film this contradictory of market myths of plenty was always going to crash and burn, not least because it was itself a product positioned in the market, created in a spirit of extreme financial excess, its success judged solely on criteria of hype and sales.
Waterworld was a film of profound melancholy and failure, released in a year when the big mainstream hits struck notes of bland heroism and sunny optimism (Braveheart, GoldenEye, Apollo 13, Toy Story, Clueless). Perhaps this incongruous dysphoria is noteworthy in itself. Yet for all its bleakness, the film’s final disclosure is utopian. Unlike Titanic, which is actually quite a gothic, sinister film underneath all that suffocating (Celine) Dionysian schmaltz, Waterworld ends with biblical hopefulness and the rediscovery of “Dry Land”. As in Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men, fertility and the safeguarding of a child are achieved in a way that suggests a way out of the excessive-wasteland end of history nightmare. Waterworld’s nineties fable of profit and loss is at least interesting because of this basic commitment to imagining a far-flung future, even coming off the back of so much waterlogged meaninglessness.