Ty Burr
January 26, 1996 AT 05:00 AM EST

Well, Waterworld. For the past two years it’s served as whipping boy for those who think that movie studios spend too much money, for those who’ve been waiting for Kevin Costner to fall on his face, and for those who simply like to gloat over a Hollywood shipwreck. Reasonably successful in the theaters (grossing $88 million), Waterworld‘s nearly $200 million cost still doomed it to perceptions of failure. If it weren’t for home video, in fact, the movie would already be lying side-down in the murk of movie history: a Titanic in both hopes and results.

On tape, of course, you can haul this tub up to the surface whenever you like. And while the epic, futuristic Waterworld may lose some visual grandeur on a small screen, it benefits from the absence of controversy. In theaters, the movie came off as little more than a workmanlike rip-off of The Road Warrior, down to the grumpy antihero and blazing action-pic set pieces. On TV, a more intriguing reading of Waterworld emerges — the Existential Raft Drama.

Here’s how it works: Take a handful of characters — three works best, could be more — put ’em on a raft or a small boat, let ’em drift for a while without sign of land, and then sit back while they morph into allegorical figures. Something about the absence of furniture makes human dilemmas stand out all the more boldly, more figuratively. It’s also easy on the budget. Well, it was before Waterworld.

Hitchcock broke the champagne bottle on the subgenre with Lifeboat, a one-set experiment that puts eight survivors of a torpedoed freighter into a dinky dinghy — then ups the ante by having a sly German officer (Walter Slezak) clamber aboard. As ennui, exposure, and hunger take their toll, the passengers cast off their flaws: The socialite journalist (Tallulah Bankhead) sheds her jewelry and elitism, the millionaire businessman (Henry Hull) learns that poor people have feelings too, the Communist sailor (John Hodiak) bends enough to fall for the journalist. The script’s point is that American individualism had to be overcome to battle the enemy’s wartime ruthlessness — but the scene in which the characters finally gang up on the German carries a vigilante chill that’s pure Hitchcock.

Roman Polanski’s brilliant first feature, Knife in the Water, is even creepier. On a whim, an arrogant, affluent middle-aged husband (Leon Niemczyk) and his young, mysterious wife (Jolanta Umecka) invite a strapping hitchhiker (Zygmunt Malanowicz) to join them on a day sail. The yacht has barely left the dock when the characters are quickly and brutally stripped to their essentials, the two men feinting and jabbing — verbally at first, finally for real — to see who ”wins” the woman. The wife, needless to say, quietly holds the trump card, and the way in which the movie traces her transformation from bespectacled hausfrau to elemental Woman and back again still packs a punch.

The very similar Dead Calm has its jolts too, but of a more conventional kind. Australian director Phillip Noyce grafts Knife in the Water onto Fatal Attraction for an undeniably effective thriller about a couple (Sam Neill and Nicole Kidman, in the role that brought her to Hollywood’s attention) grieving over the loss of their child, and the handsome but seriously demented stranger (Billy Zane) they allow on board their yacht. Zane’s nutjob act is awfully flashy — not to mention his eventual demise at flare-point — but Kidman is finally more impressive as a weak-willed wifey who locates her own core of resolve.

Likewise with Waterworld. The battle scene early in the movie between peaceful atoll dwellers and the evil Smokers led by Deacon (Dennis Hopper) is spectacular but a tad rote — and on TV it plays like a fistfight among Sea Monkeys. The explosive climax aboard the Smokers’ reconstituted Exxon Valdez is exciting and even funny (and when was the last time a Kevin Costner movie had a sense of humor?). But Waterworld‘s heart is in the long, drifting scenes aboard the Drifter’s Rube Goldberg raft, in which he circles warily around Helen (Jeanne Tripplehorn) and 10-year-old Enola (Tina Majorino), slowly allowing himself to become part of an unexpected nuclear family.

As in the underrated A Perfect World, Costner modulates his trademark dourness in subtle fashion, pointing the way for the movie’s futuristic society to regenerate itself. With its near-biblical search for dry land, Waterworld clearly aspires to mythic levels; ironically, it’s the homier scenes that resonate most. The movie could probably have put the same point across in a swimming pool — and had money left over to raise the Titanic itself. Waterworld: B- Lifeboat: B+ Knife in the Water: A Dead Calm: B

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