The reappraisal economy
When Waterworld was released 25 years ago last week, its star, Kevin Costner, had been on a run of hits — among them Bull Durham, Field of Dreams, and Dances With Wolves — that had made him America's prince of middlebrow drama. He wasn't as magnetic as Tom Cruise or as versatile as Tom Hanks, but he exuded a comforting, old-fashioned weariness that audiences adored. By 1995, he was as sure a thing as existed in Hollywood.
But Waterworld — a postapocalyptic epic about a flooded future Earth — would put an end to that. With a $172 million budget, it was then the most expensive film ever made, and as stories of production difficulties and clashing egos surfaced, it seemed doomed before its release — and when it finally arrived, the critics were unkind. "It's too earnest and ambitious for its sloppiness to go unnoticed," The San Francisco Chronicle said in a typically withering review. "...it's too flashy and trashy to be taken as seriously as it wants to be." Waterworld would make just $88 million in its embarrassed North American run, ending Costner's streak and wounding his career.
Though it eventually eked out a profit, Waterworld joined a list of movies — Heaven's Gate, Howard The Duck, Ishtar — whose very names were synonymous with failure; it was, if not the worst film ever made, certainly not worthy of action figures, comic books, or a moviegoer's time. There was simply no reason to watch a 135 minute-long slog in which a web-toed Kevin Costner drank his own recycled pee. It was an ill-conceived misfire, best left in the trashbin of movie history.
Yet in today's culture-media landscape, no dumpster goes unscavenged. A host of recent articles pegged to Waterworld's anniversary now insist that the film is not the catastrophe that everyone recalls. "...after re-watching it for the first time earlier this week, I think it's quite a bit better than [terrible]," Chris Nashawaty writes in Esquire. "I don't think that Waterworld is some misunderstood masterpiece. But I am convinced that enough time has gone by that it deserves its day in the cinematic court of appeals."
The idea that time's simple passage is enough to render any piece of art — a film, a book, an album — worthy of reconsideration is a recent phenomenon, driven more by a need for content than by rigorous critical judgment. Reappraisals were once an admission of error by the reviewing class — as with Blade Runner, now regarded as a science-fiction landmark, but initially dismissed as ponderous, "freakish," and thematically thin. Or as with Stephen King, long repudiated as a purveyor of genre trash, only to be given the prestigious O. Henry award in 1996. Or when, two years after its original review, The Source bumped Jay-Z's Reasonable Doubt up to its highest rating, retroactively granting it eternal-classic status. Such upgrades were rare, and as such, they were a cause for celebration: we were invited to rediscover something we'd forgotten or been instructed to ignore.
But this ancillary aspect of a reviewer's job — examining a relic with fresh eyes and an open mind — has steadily been reduced to a cheap internet trope. And you don't have to take my word for it; in his essay, Nashawaty writes, "I know what you're thinking. That this is just another one of those insincere, contrarian hot takes where a critic goes to bat for some dinged-up piece of pop-culture flotsam in the hopes of getting a few clicks. If I wasn't writing this, I'd probably be thinking that, too."
It's one thing for a bygone piece of art to gradually seem worthy of acclaim — for, say, technology to evolve in such a way that Tron seems prescient, or for Nick Drake's delicate folk songs to feel modern alongside Beck or Sufjan Stevens. But it's another thing entirely for a writer — often realizing that, Hey, five or 10 years have passed since that thing came out — to declare that Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was cruelly misjudged, or that Def Leppard must be taken seriously, just because they can.
It's not that these critics are wrong; after all, taste is objective, and merit is in the eye of the beholder. As the director John Waters — whose films, such as Polyester and Hairspray, long ago underwent their own rehabilitation — once said, "There's no such thing as a bad movie… If you really hate the movie, just look at the lamps in it and pretend the movie is about lamps… and then never is it boring. It's always exciting, and it's always surprising." It's a generous way to approach art, and one envies such a capacity to enjoy the unenjoyable. But the problem is that it's become impossible to distinguish between click-chasing lamp admiration and serious criticism. Maybe in the future, the trend will become so pronounced that The Room will earn our respect. Or maybe that future has already arrived.
I'm aware that our species faces greater perils than someone telling us to give Spider-Man 3 another shot. But it's a symptom of a greater disorder: the fact that our well of information — not just about movies or music, but about illness, politics, everything — is bottomless, and its volume erodes the meaning of any one opinion. For every article asserting that Waterworld is better than you remember, there will be another to say that it's still awful. Everything is good, everything is bad, and nothing carries any weight. So if there's a recent thing that you, alone, enjoyed — be it a Uwe Boll flick or Iggy Azalea's last album — you needn't worry. It won't be long until someone will come along to validate your opinion. So long as there is art, and a digital culture that rewards "contrarian hot takes," you can count on it.