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The Kevin Costner Action Flop Defying Odds And Heating Up On Netflix

Some movies live in the zeitgeist long after their initial release because of their commercial, critical, or cultural success. Others develop a long-standing reputation because of their status as a flop. The Kevin Costner starring dystopian action epic Waterworld is one of the most famous examples of the latter.

The film takes place hundreds of years in the future after global warming has melted the polar ice caps. With all of Earth's landmasses completely submerged under the oceans, humans eke out a meager existence in floating communities in the middle of the endless water. However, some have hope of one day finding a mythical place called Dryland, the last remaining bit of solid ground in existence. Thus begins the epic adventure of a nameless ocean drifter (Costner) and a young woman called Enola (Tina Majorino), who may hold the key to discovering this lost paradise.

Waterworld was notorious at the time for being the most expensive movie production in history. When it premiered in 1995, its middling domestic box office performance — $88 million would be a solid haul for some films, but not ones with a $175 million budget — and chilly critical reception got it labeled as a disappointment (via New York Times). But is that a reputation the movie deserves?

The film has been undergoing a bit of a cultural reappraisal in the decades since it was first declared a flop (and that's not even to mention the fact that the movie actually did make money thanks in part to home video sales). Netflix viewers, in particular, seem to be interested in giving the flick another chance. At the time of writing, Waterworld was on the list of the streamer's top 10 most viewed movies on the platform.

Here's why this notorious bomb might actually be worth a watch.

According to some, Waterworld isn't as bad as its reputation suggests

Despite Waterworld's reputation as a famously bad movie, the film has long had its defenders. It's not that many critics thought the movie's goofy plot and uneven performances were something to see. Rather, it's the ambitious set pieces and production design that had some declaring the movie worth a watch.

In their 1995 review of the film, Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly wrote, "Waterworld is nothing if not a triumph of large-scale action-adventure logistics..." They also pointed out that one of the movie's biggest hurdles ended up producing one of its greatest strengths. They explained, "The very thing that made it such a high-profile production nightmare — the challenge of staging an entire movie on the ocean surface — pays off in the film's visually enveloping, woozily off-kilter atmosphere..."

Meanwhile, ReelViews' James Berardinelli wasn't blown away by the plot or acting in the film, but they did conclude, "Although the storyline isn't all that invigorating, the action is, and that's what saves Waterworld...everyone behind the scenes did their part with aplomb, and the result is a feast for the eyes and ears."

In a 2020 retrospective, Ben Child of The Guardian called for a reappraisal of the film's status as a disaster. They declared, "[T]here isn't really anything notable about Waterworld to suggest it truly deserves such a low reputation." After arguing that the action scenes "are preposterously ambitious yet pulled off with aplomb," they wrote, "Waterworld is a thoroughly rousing, pleasingly throwaway 135 minutes...Perhaps it's time to let those critical water-levels fall back to reveal the existence of a perfectly watchable sci-fi cult classic."

Judge for yourself: Waterworld is currently available to stream on Netflix.