I foreground pee-drinking not because it's fun to take cheap shots (which it is), but because the film genuinely cares that much. Pee-drinking is the first thing that happens. We get the scene-setting as a portentous but oddly tinny-sounding narrator invokes "The future. The polar ice caps have melted, covering the Earth with water. Those who survived have adapted to a new world." And then this spectacularly expensive motion picture elects to introduce us to that new world by showing the main character running his freshly-pissed pee through a filter, and drinking it.

And thus does the Hollywood Century Trilogy of Spectacular Flops come to a close with the inevitable Waterworld the little $175 million film that couldn't. Though, whereas the legendary misfires Heaven's Gate and Ishtar both lost legitimately enormous sums of money, Waterworld actually came tolerably close to breaking even in 1995, which for a film of such a ridiculous price tag that is never seen onscreen, ain't half bad. What it certainly did not do was stain producer-star Kevin Costner with the stink of epic failure; two years later, Warner Bros. had the rather inexplicable lack of foresight to let him do the whole thing again, with the very similar The Postman (which came not even slightly close to breaking even). And in this it is much unlike the films that ended the careers of Michael Cimino and Elaine May.

I will confess to feeling extremely disappointed: I walked into Waterworld expecting something outrageously terrible, and I got something that's... hell, it's borderline halfway decent. For the first 25 minutes or so, it's even actually good, in its derivative way. The film baldly wants to be The Road Warrior on the open sea, copying the ur-film in the "post-apocalyptic badass vs. colorful weirdoes" genre in many specific beats, above and beyond the normal ripping-off that film had been subjected to in the 14 years since its creation. That being said, the open sea makes for an unusually novel setting for such an overworked scenario, which gives the film a surprisingly fun amount of personality that's entirely its own. The setting falls apart on even the slight push of logic: the world would not, in fact, be covered in water even if the polar caps and all the water bound up in glaciers atop mountains were to melt, nowhere close to it. As far as metaphors begging the audience to stop murdering the ozone layer go, it's not as scientifically inane as The Day After Tomorrow, but it's trending in that direction.

But if we can buy the film's backstory on its own terms, Waterworld makes surprisingly effective use of it for quite a good long while. Outside of that opening narration, the Pete Rader/David Twohy script mostly introduces the rules of the waterworld through showing, not telling, giving it an authentic, natural feeling without too much explaining getting in the way of what turns out to be surprisingly durable internal logic. We're first introduced to a nameless "mariner", apparently the figures in this world who explore the far reaches of known ocean scavenging for barter items, played by Costner in a performance that is by no means "good", in most senses of that word. And this is no real shock, given that Costner is by no means a reliably good actor. But his limitations are well-suited to the character: he plays a peremptory, self-centered man of cold efficiency and limited charms, and given what an enormous asshole he apparently was on the Waterworld shoot, this certainly fits him better than yet another attempt at playing a smooth charmer, something he had last successfully done seven years prior, in Bull Durham.

This mariner hears of a nearby "atoll", a collection of floating debris of the industrial world that was fashioned into a large platform functioning as a town. Here, he tries to find the best price for his most precious possession - a large pot of dirt - and is found out as a mutant, having developed gills behind his ears and webbing beneath his toes. The elders of the atoll consider him enough of a bad omen that they prepare to execute him by drowning him in their pit of compost sludge, but another group of strangers interrupt. Seems that among the many lost souls living on the atoll, there's a little girl named Enola (Tina Majorino), with a tattoo on her back that seemingly points the way to "Dryland", the mystical land which remains uncorrupted by the rising waters. Her guardian, Helen (Jeanne Tripplehorn), and a dotty old inventor, Gregor (Michael Jeter) have been concocting a scheme to leave the atoll on a flying machine once they've decoded the tattoo, but despite all Helen's precautions, Enola's secret has been found out by a local piece of obvious bad news named Nord (Gerard Murphy), who is a spy of the local gang of colorful punks. And their leader, a madman naming himself the Deacon (Dennis Hopper), has been on the hunt for any leads on Dryland himself. And the Deacon and his gang of "smokers" - those who travel the open water on what's left of the powerboats and jet skis using what's left of the gasoline - strike the atoll at exactly the convenient moment to distract the mariner's executioners. Helen frees him during the chaos on one condition: he needs to take her and Enola to safety, and thence to whatever promised land Enola's back leads to.

It's right about this point that Waterworld asserts itself as a movie that's not very good: firstly, because Deacon is a destablising villain, too out-of-place in the film's otherwise consistent, thoughtful world, and played with a fiery flare by Hopper that's wildly out of proportion to virtually everybody else in the sullen, angsty cast. Secondly, because for all its charms as a post-apocalyptic travelogue (and I maintain that it has several, all the way to its final scenes), Waterworld turns out to be absolutely horrible as an action film. I do not blame director Kevin Reynolds nor his second unit for this: filming on water is a bitch, and staging elaborate action choreography that involves boats and jet skis is a fool's errand to begin with. But simply because it's excusable doesn't make these scenes any more exciting to watch, nor any more competently shot.

It's also certainly the case that Waterworld is longer than it has any reasonable justification for being. Not that a film of its scope can't earn a running time in excess of two hours, but the film doesn't fill that time with much of anything. After the escape from the atoll (which happens rather early on, all things considered), the writers have only a few basic situations that they cycle between, either the mariner and Helen sniping at each other, or the Deacon setting some manner of trap. Once, there's an impressively-designed but biologically unlikely sea monster. And all this, coupled with the necessary emptiness of the setting, leads to a movie that's circular and slow and draggy right when it needs to be tight and tense.

Still, as an exercise in sloppy, excessive action-adventure cinema - something the 1990s excelled at, just in 1995 alone we have the likes of Judge Dredd and Jumanji and Congo - Waterworld acquits itself far better than its reputation suggests. Outside of a few lines of dialogue the screenwriters missed ("you're a turd that won't flush", snarks the Deacon at one point, in a world where flush toilets have presumably not existed for at least a century or two), the film's world is well-built and provides a suitable setting for its generic story. The sets range from convincing to embarrassingly cheap (this is, again, not a film that looks in any way like it cost half of $175 million), but the imagination and conceptual integrity of the sets (designed by Dennis Gassner), rickety skeletons of torn and ancient metal, and the hacked-together scraps making up the costumes (designed by John Bloomfield), are genuinely impressive, and the story the tell is at least as convincing as the one the characters act out. Dean Semler's cinematographer capturing these things is crisp and bright, nimbly capturing the harshness of light on the open water. It is not a good film - it is often dull, and always trite - but in a period when tentpoles were starting to get drunk on scale and noisy impact, it's far from the most stupid, the most ineptly written, or most generic - just in 1995 alone we have Judge Dredd and Jumanji and Congo. But it's certainly not bad enough to be a cultural punchline, and I admire it for its thoughtful attempt to punch some new life into the post-apocalypse world of deserts and ruined cities, even if its execution leaves a good amount of room for improvement.

Elsewhere in American cinema in 1995
-For the actual shape of the future, look to Pixar's Toy Story, the first all-CGI animated feature
-The highest-grossing NC-17 release of all time, Paul Verhoeven's infamous Showgirls, is released
-Richard Linklater directs the quiet story of two kids who fall in love on a train, Before Sunrise, accidentally inaugurating one of cinema's all-time greatest franchises

Elsewhere in world cinema in 1995
-To celebrate the centennial of the Lumiรจre brothers' first exhibition, 40 directors from around the globe contribute a micro-short to the anthology Lumiรจre et compagnie
-Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg announce the rules of Denmark's new hyper-realist Dogme 95 movement
-Britain's favorite movie spy, James Bond, comes out of a six-year retirement in GoldenEye