What Universal Studios' Waterworld Got Right About A Stunt Show, Wrong About Climate Change
ACROSS THE PLANET, HUNDREDS OF NEWS ORGANIZATIONS — INCLUDING THIS ONE — ARE SPENDING A WEEK FOCUSING ON ALL THINGS CLIMATE CHANGE. THE GLOBAL COLLABORATION IS CALLED COVERING CLIMATE NOW, AND THIS STORY IS PART OF IT. YOU ARE ALSO PART OF IT. USE THE FORM BELOW TO TELL US WHAT'S ON YOUR MIND, OR IF THERE'S SOMETHING YOU'D LIKE TO KNOW.
Waterworld. If you know the movie, it's remembered as what was then the most expensive movie ever made, which became a huge flop, which also had a giant set that sunk into the ocean. But Waterworld screenwriter Peter Rader says that's all wrong.
"Even though there was all this negative press at the time," Rader said, "it might be one of the most profitable titles in the Universal library."
That's because the Waterworld show at Universal Studios Hollywood — aka Waterworld: A Live Sea War Spectacular — has run since 1995, and 2,500 people can fit into the show's bleachers. Tens of millions have seen that show over the years at a Universal park — Rader said he thought it might even be hundreds of millions, with up to 10 shows a day all year long.
I'm one of those millions. I love it. I get chills during the opening narration, and love coming back to see it from different angles at different times of day. (I also like pro wrestling, so watching people fake fighting and jumping off of high places at this thing might be kind of close?)
"It's a really odd situation where I think the attraction is far more popular than the movie, in most ways," Shawn Marshall of theme park site Parks And Cons said. "Probably for a lot of theme park fans, when you say 'Waterworld,' we're all thinking of the Universal show moreso than the movie at this point."
If you haven't seen the show, it simplifies the movie's story and packs it into 20 minutes of pure action. After a pre-show getting the crowd hyped and explaining/showing that you may get very, very wet if you're in the splash zone, a deep voice comes on over the loudspeakers to explain the story.
It's the far future and, with the ice caps melted, everything's underwater. Everything except for floating cities known as "Atolls," with a hero named the Mariner searching for the mythological "Dryland" — and a gang of pirates known as "Smokers" led by the Deacon, who wants control of any theoretical land for himself. While the attraction bears a lot in common with the film, it technically takes place after the movie, with Atoll resident Helen coming back with proof of the existence of Dryland.
Watch the full show here:
You see the residents of the Atoll battle the Smokers using jet-skis, water cannons, and much more. There are machine guns and a bazooka. According to Universal, it includes hundreds of stunts, from ziplines to jet ski launches. And there are so many pyrotechnics between exploding gas tanks and an even more fiery finale that you'll feel the heat in the crowd, wishing you were getting doused with that water. The Deacon even falls 50 feet while on fire.
And unlike the movie, there's no scene with the Mariner purifying his own urine.
It's been such a hit that the same show opened at Universal parks in Japan and Singapore. Universal also has a park in the works for Beijing — and it's set to have an entire Waterworld-themed zone, filled with related attractions.
ALMOST 25 YEARS OF SEA WAR
The show has endured, with next year marking the 25th anniversary of both the attraction and the film. It won a Thea (Themed Entertainment Association) Award after it first launched, and went on to win the Thea Classic Award in 2017 for being an attraction that's withstood the test of time.
"I've been many times — I've brought my family, I love it," Rader said.
The show came into being as a replacement for the Miami Vice Action Spectacular, which had been in place since 1989. Work on the Waterworld attraction began before the movie ever came out. It was developed by Universal Studios with the help of outside vendors Renaissance Enertainment and Birket Engineering, with Action Horizons coming in to deliver a 2014 update.
"I think [the show's] a good time," Rader said. "It basically has the rooting stakes ... everyone really loves it, especially when that plane comes over the Atoll. That finale is terrific."
We didn't mention this earlier, but it's a great finale, especially if you're centrally seated. A plane literally comes over the wall and splashes down, with fire bursting out as it "explodes" (as much as a fake plane that they keep reusing in every show can explode).
Here's just the seaplane crash, for your viewing pleasure:
"That plane crashing into the water — it's one of the most Instagrammable things around," Marshall said. "It was Instagrammable before Instagram existed."
WHY AN ACTUAL WATERWORLD IS IMPOSSIBLE
Climate change was on Rader's mind when he wrote the movie — but it seemed like a far-off fantasy.
"It was a sort of exotic, futuristic type of thing," Rader said. "Climate change, and the idea of rising oceans, was very much a distant future kind of thing. But I also thought it really provided a really interesting premise for a post-apocalyptic movie."
Rader did some basic research for the movie, but adds that even with current projections of what would happen if everything melted, we wouldn't end up in a Waterworld. National Geographic did a story in 2013 with maps projecting what the world would look like with everything melted — while there are large swaths of our coastlines and islands that would be underwater, there's still a lot of land left.
"It wouldn't be a complete flooding of the planet, so I exaggerated that, and made it, 'Well, it'll be five miles. The only thing that's still above water would be something like Mount Everest,'" Rader said.
The actual rise in the waters would be more like 216 feet, according to National Geographic. To reach the top of Mount Everest, you'd need more than three times the amount of water on the planet.
WHERE WATERWORLD CAME FROM
Waterworld started as an idea amidst attempts to make a ripoff of Mad Max, according to Rader. He was offered a chance to direct a Mad Max-like film, with what he considered ethically questionable funding.
Beyond the financing, he just wasn't interested in doing another Mad Max. But it got him thinking about how to spin the story in a new direction
"Well, what if it were set on water?" Rader said. "What if the post-apocalyptic future that we're talking about was a world that was completely flooded?"
As Waterworld went through Hollywood development, there were at least five writers who did significant work on the script. A total of 36 writers did some sort of work on it, including Buffy mastermind Joss Whedon — according to Rader, there were 20 different drafts. But the characters and setting from that first script remain today in the Waterworld attraction at Universal.
The story was structured as a Western, Rader said — perfectly fitting for a show in the tradition of classic Western stunt shows.
WATERWORLD VS. STAR WARS
"I don't remember ever seeing [the Waterworld live show] and it not being just completely live energy throughout the entire crowd, no matter how punishing and hot the sun might be," Parks and Cons' Marshall said. "It really stresses how much people love live entertainment."
Marshall compared it favorably to Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge at Disneyland, noting that while Disney's cut back on live interactions and doesn't feature any live shows as part of the land, Universal's stuck with Waterworld for decades.
"You have so many young people that are there that probably haven't seen the movie, but they don't need that prior knowledge," Marshall said. "Galaxy's Edge, you need the prior knowledge, you need to know it takes place after Episode 8 and in between, and [with Waterworld] you come in with nothing."
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HOW HOLLYWOOD DEALS (OR DOESN'T) WITH CLIMATE CHANGE
While plenty of people are seeing the Waterworld stunt spectacular, Rader said that he doesn't think Hollywood has been doing enough to tell stories related to climate change.
"We are in collective denial about the severity of that issue," Rader said. "Hollywood is way, way behind the curve here."
Rader and his wife have their own production company focused on making what he described as "conscious media," looking at big issues like climate change.
The United Nations held a climate roundtable earlier this year with experts including engineers, futurists, and Rader himself. It's a sign of the impact Rader feels his work has had.
"People always say, 'I love that film,' with that tone in their voice which is, 'It wasn't as terrible as they say!'" Rader said. "The film has its flaws, for sure — when you do a film that big, it's never going to be perfect — but it definitely struck a cord."
Rader said he feels like there's a resonance in Waterworld that goes all the way back to Noah's Ark and flood myths, and the idea that humanity could be destroyed by a flood — then be forced to figure out how to rebuild from there.
If you want to get flooded in person, you can get splashed at Universal Studios Hollywood several times per day — and at Universal Studios parks around the world.
Watch the old, pre-update version of the show here: