How I Learned to Love the Bomb

Awake in the Dark

If it is your life's goal to read only one more film book, go and secure a copy of Steven Bach's Final Cut. Bach was a production executive at United Artists during the studio's glory years of the late Seventies and early Eighties and was involved in the making of the company's legendary failure, Heaven's Gate.

Final Cut is a thrilling, comprehensive autopsy of a project gone horribly wrong,
a study in the ways in which power ends up in the wrong places and how an out-of-control director, inflated with the gas of his own publicity, repeatedly stands toe-to-toe with intimidated executives and wins every major fight.

Heaven's Gate was dead on arrival at the nation's theatres; United Artists lingered awhile, mortally wounded. The film, which is every bit as bad as original reviews indicated, was believed to be the one with which Hollywood would finally learn its lesson: Don't go putting all your financial eggs in one flimsy, expensive basket.

Some of us knew better. In just a few scant years, studios would lavish millions and millions on such things as Howard the Duck and Ishtar, films that anyone could and should have seen were doomed, or at least deeply troubled, by about the second week of

This year it is up to Waterworld to carry on the fine tradition molded by the 1962 Mutiny on the Bounty, the 1963Cleopatra, Heaven's Gate, Ishtar, and The Last Action Hero.

And yes, the film is in every way up to the task.

The first thing you want to know is: Where did the money go? You know, the $175 million. It is neither on the screen nor in the screenwriting. The "talent" got paid big bucks, but neither Kevin Costner nor Jeanne Tripplehorn had to work very hard for it. Dennis Hopper, who truly is a talent, is repeating his Speed role in a different costume. Sad to see such a resourceful actor descend into stereotype.

I suppose the most disgusting thing about Waterworld's waste is its essential nature as a hand-me-down. The uninitiated might presume it to be the latest in the Mad Max/Road Warrior series. Same costumes, much the same characters, played on water instead of the arid outback. The story only barely hangs together, and it asks the audience to make gigantic leaps of faith. (For instance, if enough millennia have passed for evolution to provide gills on at least one human, why does the Exxon Valdez survive basically intact? Did rust disappear with the polar ice caps?) The only scenes of genuine interest involve action, yet they take the stakes no higher than True Lies or Die Hard.

Not surprisingly, Waterworld has done mediocre business, and will never, even with foreign distribution and video sales and rental, make back its huge investment. I say that's great. The industry can use a purge every now and again, although I suspect it will remain addicted to high-dollar blockbusters. Such purges allow, if only momentarily, interest to be directed to less expensive, people-oriented films. A survey of this summer's films plainly shows that the best bang for the buck, to use an ironic metaphor, has been provided by smart, low-cost movies like Crumb, Smoke, The Postman, and The Incredibly True Adventure of Two Girls in Love.

It is tempting to fantasize about the impact of Waterworld's financial hemorrhage. Because Waterworld is by far the most expensive flop ever, one imagines an entire industry, not just Universal, staggering around in pain and bewilderment. How could we have done this! If you could just give us another chance.... To hell with star egos and star salaries and expensive special effects! From now on, we're gonna make films that matter!

In fact, all the money taken in to date from Crumb,Smoke,The Postman, and Two Girls in Love doesn't equal Waterworld's grosses for two weekends. There's an audience for these films, but it's tiny compared to the potential audience for a Waterworld or a Die Hard. For that reason, this year's mega-flop is as likely to be the last big-budget disaster as World War I was the war to end all wars. Let's not forget that the American film industry is - and I don't overstep with this word - filthy with money. And thanks to us, it will always have plenty of it.

No doubt, some heads will roll at Universal, if they haven't already, because of Waterworld. It may be a while before director Kevin Reynolds gets a good job. But there is no net loss for the industry; the money just gets pushed around from one studio to the other. As long as a movie-loving public continues to break box office records on an annual basis, there will be more than enough money to make $100 million movies. n

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