By David Sturm, Copyright 1996

"Waterworld," now out on video, is the Oldsmobile Cutlass of action-adventure movies--a perfectly adequate vehicle.

This particular Olds, however, carried a space shuttle price tag.

How much money did this historic flop lose? To quote the portentious newsreel narrator from "Citizen Kane" on what it cost to build Xanadu: "No man can say."

But that's all money under the bridge. Now, "Waterworld" is on videocassette, a box on a shelf, a cheap commodity to be judged merely on its value as a diversion.

As such, it's a "Road Warrior" knockoff that gets decent mileage and handles corners. It even has a few surprises under the hood.

In the post-apocalypse world of "Waterworld," the polar ice caps have melted, the earth's surface is covered with water and mankind--what's left of it--survives in ramshackle floating towns called atolls.

Kevin Costner plays the Mariner, a lone wolf trader who sails from atoll to atoll and peddles the planet's most precious substance, dirt. "Pure dirt--3.2 kilos," says an appreciative customer about one delivery.

The bad guys are the Smokers, a huge gang of bandits on Jet-Skis who raid and loot atolls (their home base is the rusting Exxon Valdez).

Their leader, Dennis Hopper, is on the lookout for a little girl with a map tattooed on her back. The map supposedly shows the way to a mythical non-inundated patch called Dryland.

Naturally, the tattooed girl and her female guardian come under Costner's protection and all three must flee from the dreaded Smokers.

Much of the fun in "Waterworld" is in the neo-peasant garb and Rube Goldberg contraptions that sustain life, travel, and war in this dystopian future. Costner's zippy catamaran is as full of clever devices as James Bond's Aston Martin.

Three sequences--an airplane trying to break free of a tether to a ship's mast, Costner's "human bait" fishing technique and a spooky visit to a drowned city--are pure eyeball candy. The money has definitely been put on the screen by director Kevin Reynolds.

After a strong start, however, the narrow escapes, pyrotechnic displays, and battle scenes just seem to pile up willy nilly.

The final escape, involving a bungee jump from a hotair balloon, looks like it was thought up by fifth graders in study hall.

A movie this big has too many fingerprints on it. It has none of the vision that directors like George Miller, Terry Gilliam, or Ridley Scott could have brought to it.

"Waterworld" wants to be mythic, but it's just manic.

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