10 Facts About Kevin Costner's 'Waterworld'

Kevin Costner stars in Waterworld (1995).
Kevin Costner stars in Waterworld (1995). / Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

Waterworld isn’t remembered for having the best acting or the most coherent screenplay, but it’s still memorable. Set in a post-apocalyptic future where melting polar ice caps have flooded the world, the 1995 film starring Kevin Costner features a unique setting that was incredibly expensive to shoot. That, plus the troubled, chaotic production, added up to an inflated budget that overshadowed the movie’s critical and commercial reception. Whether you love it or love to hate it, here are some facts about Waterworld in honor of the guilty pleasure movie's 25th anniversary.

1. The Waterworld script was inspired by Mad Max.

Sixteen years before the premiere of Waterworld, George Miller launched an action franchise set in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Waterworld differs from the Mad Max series in some major ways (while Waterworld’s setting is an endless sea, most Mad Max movies take place in the desert), but they both imagine a primitive, violent future. Waterworld still gets compared to Mad Max today, and the similarities aren’t a coincidence. The script’s original writer Peter Rader said the idea for Waterworld was conceived as a Mad Max rip-off in 1986 following the success of 1981’s Road Warrior.

2. The movie marked Kevin Costner and Kevin Reynolds's fourth collaboration.

Star Kevin Costner and director Kevin Reynolds worked on three films together prior to Waterworld: Fandango (1985), Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991), and Rapa Nui (1994). (Costner produced but didn’t star in the latter.) During their fourth collaboration, the pair often butted heads over the creative direction of the film. Costner was apparently so hard to please that Reynolds reportedly quit as they were finishing production on the movie and let Costner finish the film on his own. The rift marked the end of the team’s professional relationship for a while, but they reunited for the 2012 miniseries Hatfields & McCoys.

3. Waterworld was the most expensive movie ever made at the time of its release.

Before it was first screened to the public, Waterworld had already gained a notorious reputation for being the most expensive film of all time. The original budget was set at $65 million, but thanks to the lavish, bloated production, that number rapidly increased. The final total came out to $175 million, breaking the previous record for costliest film ever produced by about $55 million.

The elaborate sets built on the ocean ate up a significant portion of the movie's budget. The floating atoll, where much of the film takes place, weighed 1000 tons and measured a quarter mile in circumference. It took so much steel to build it that extra materials had to be shipped from California to Hawaii after the Aloha State's reserves were exhausted.

4. The movie's production was troubled from the start.

Much of the blame for Waterworld going over its budget and schedule was the result of bad luck. There were numerous injuries and disasters on-set: Kevin Costner’s stunt double Norman Howell nearly died of an embolism when he surfaced too quickly during a deep-sea dive, and Costner had his own near-death experience when he got caught in a squall while tied to a 40-foot boat mast.

Because the production went longer than anticipated, the crew wasn’t able to leave Hawaii before hurricane season as planned—and a hurricane ended up sinking the incredibly expensive floating atoll set, and another had to be built.

5. Joss Whedon was an uncredited screenwriter.

Avengers director Joss Whedon was one of many writers who worked on Waterworld’s screenplay. He was brought in to punch up the script after production had already begun, and he soon learned that he had his work was cut out for him.

"I was there basically taking notes from Costner, who was very nice, fine to work with, but he was not a writer," Whedon told The A.V. Club in 2001. "And he had written a bunch of stuff that they wouldn't let their staff touch.” What was supposed to be a week-long script-doctoring gig turned into what Whedon described as “seven weeks of hell”: “I wrote a few puns, and a few scenes that I can't even sit through because they came out so bad."

6. Its production gave Hawaii’s economy a boost.

One winner in Waterworld’s disastrous production was the state of Hawaii. The movie was shot on the coast of Hawaii’s Big Island, and the longer the movie shot in the area, the more money that was pumped into the local economy. Hawaii brought in more than $35 million from Waterworld’s production in 1994.

7. Waterworld wasn’t a total flop.

If the average person knows one thing about Waterworld, it’s likely that it was a huge flop—but this characterization of the movie may be rooted more in legend than truth. It’s true that the film made just $88 million at the U.S. box office, which was far less than its inflated budget. It performed much better overseas, however, grossing $175 million internationally. Waterworld was also a surprise VHS hit, which eventually helped Universal turn a decent profit on the film.

8. The movie received an Oscar nomination.

Waterworld was hardly a critical darling when it premiered, but it did receive recognition from one of Hollywood’s most prestigious institutions. For the 1996 Academy Awards, the movie was nominated for Best Sound. It lost the award to Apollo 13.

9. It earned a few Razzie nominations, too.

Waterworld got much more attention from the Golden Raspberry Awards—a.k.a. the Razzies—than it did from the Oscars. The tongue-in-cheek award show recognizes the worst Hollywood has to offer each year, and in 1996, it honored Waterworld with four nominations. Though it was nominated for Worst Picture, Worst Director, and Worst Actor for Costner, Waterworld won only one of its Razzie nominations: Dennis Hopper for Worst Supporting Actor.

10. Waterworld inspired a hit attraction at Universal Studios.

Steren Giannini, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Waterworld may have been panned by audiences and critics, but the stunt show it inspired has been a consistent hit at Universal theme parks for decades. Waterworld: A Live Sea War Spectacular is set after the events of the film, and it features Helen (Jeanne Tripplehorn's character), the Deacon (Hopper's), and the Mariner (Costner's role) played by actors performing live stunts in the water and on land. The combination of pyrotechnics, water special effects, and a climax involving a sea plane make it one of the more memorable stunt shows at a major theme park.

Even as Waterworld has lost its pop culture cachet, the show has kept its theme—which is unusual for a park that’s quick to retire or re-theme attractions to make room for newer properties. Waterworld: A Live Sea War Spectacular, which debuted in 1995, is the longest-running show at Universal Studios Hollywood. Versions of the show are also performed at Universal Studios Japan and Universal Studios Singapore.