'Waterworld' Plunges Into Summer Season

AWASH in hype, gossip, and scuttlebutt, Kevin Costner's epic ''Waterworld'' steams into theaters today.

Will it meet the expectations generated by its gigantic budget, approaching $200 million by some reports? Could any film live up to such an expenditure, gargantuan even by Hollywood standards?

Critical opinion won't be known until today, when reviews start appearing in newspapers and magazines. And while ticket sales will probably be strong for the first weekend or two - thanks to Costner fans and adventure buffs who'll crowd the box office regardless of reviews - the picture's long-term prospects won't be measurable for at least a couple of weeks.

What is certain is that Costner's film has dived into the competitive midsummer season so waterlogged with publicity and commentary that initial judgments of its merit are likely to be significantly skewed.

Indeed, the publicity and commentary have themselves become subjects of debate.

Have budget-centered news and feature stories unfairly shifted discussion from the picture's entertainment value, where it belongs? Or is such coverage part of a studio-sanctioned media blitz designed to get all of America buzzing with curiosity?

Observers draw differing conclusions from the wealth of evidence that has bombarded them since the movie's escalating expenses and on-set squabbling began to attract attention. But two things seem clear.

One is that critics and audiences, try as they might to evaluate the picture on its own terms, will be viewing it through a haze of money-oriented reportage that can't help coloring their first impressions. The other is that press coverage has played directly into the hands of publicists eager for anything that will put their project in the headlines.

For which Universal Pictures is surely grateful, since ''Waterworld'' is at best a middle-grade entertainment.

Costner plays Mariner, a web-footed mutant who steers his ecologically correct sailboat through a future world so inundated with water - from melted polar ice - that dry land has become a wistful memory. Joined by a feisty woman named Helen and a wisecracking girl named Enola, he plays cat-and-mouse games with Deacon, a villain who presides over his wicked crew from a stronghold on (wouldn't you know?) the notorious Exxon Valdez tanker. The movie's meager narrative hinges on the Enola's back, tattooed with marks that may point the way to a spot of unsubmerged earth.

Directed by Kevin Reynolds, who reportedly left the project after quarreling with Costner over editing decisions, ''Waterworld'' looks and feels like an expensively produced comic book, complete with relentlessly unsubtle images and a story so simplistic that little dialogue is needed to flesh it out.

Its other big inspiration is the ''Mad Max'' movie series of the early '80s, from which it borrows an embarrassingly large number of plot twists, character types, and visual ideas. This includes the curious notion that in the future all people and objects will be extremely dirty - which made a smidgen of sense in Max's dusty terrain, but seems a bit odd on a planet where wetness rules.

If anything puts ''Waterworld'' over with the public, it will probably be the picture's nonstop action - quiet moments, such as an eerie visit to a ghostly underwater city, are as rare as dry spots in the ocean - and the amusingly barbaric tone of scenes featuring Deacon, played by Dennis Hopper with a wildness and wit that make Costner's stolid Mariner a washout by comparison.

Jeanne Tripplehorn and Tina Majorino are reasonably convincing as our hero's female companions, although one wonders why screenwriters Peter Rader and David Twohy deemed it necessary to knock them around so much in the story. Women have been abused by villains since silent-movie days, of course, but here even Mariner takes a nasty whack at Helen when she fails to meet his expectations. This confirms the suspicion that for all its claims of charting a fresh course, ''Waterworld'' is just another variation on macho themes already explored in countless garden-variety films.

GIVEN its flashy but familiar treatment of unsophisticated material, it's not likely ''Waterworld'' will be the runaway hit - with US engagements grossing at least $100 million before international bookings and ancillary rights kick in - that Universal needs to recoup its investment without a long wait.

This matters, since the studio's financial health hangs in the balance. So does the future bankability of Costner, already floundering after the box-office disappointments of ''Wyatt Earp'' and ''A Perfect World.''

It's doubtful whether anyone is feeling much panic however. Costner's ability to generate new projects could be impaired by a massive ''Waterworld'' flop, but he'll still be able to find safely heroic roles in pictures like ''The Bodyguard'' and ''Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves,'' which made him a superstar in the first place. And flops rarely sink studios, except in unique instances like the ''Heaven's Gate'' fiasco, which devastated United Artists in 1980.

The fact that pictures with bloated budgets and troubled production histories are almost predictable in their regularity makes the journalistic fuss over ''Waterworld'' all the more ironic. Even casual movie fans recall similar flaps over the western ''Heaven's Gate,'' the comedy ''Ishtar,'' and the fantasy ''The Hudsucker Proxy,'' all treated to extravagant coverage by reporters more interested in the film's spreadsheets than in their creativity quotients.

And it's not impossible for a troubled production to have the last laugh on doomsayers - as happened with ''Jaws,'' a smash hit that entered theaters in the wake of ''Waterworld''-like tales about budget blues, weather problems, and the hardship of filming in aquatic settings. The press revels in such stories, and when the movies in question arrive on-screen, their grosses are charted as breathlessly as the latest sports statistics.

None of which helps Hollywood peddle its illusionary wares or encourages audiences to think more deeply about the entertainments they consume. What's needed are pictures more original than ''Waterworld'' and journalism geared more to insight and analysis than to box-office popularity polls.

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