Reimagining human-nature relationships in the climate change era conjures mutants, creatures from the deep that help surface modes of becoming for a drenched world of rising tides, plastic oceans, and soaked cities. Re-imaging deep, embodied relations with watery ecologies, then, also involves attention to speculative climate fictions (cli-fi) and the potential worlds they help fathom. Cli-fi renderings of climate disaster provide critical insight into possible alternative arrangements of power, meaning, and ontological status. As such, this article explores the depths of the 1995 cli-fi film Waterworld, offering an ecocritical analysis of how the film’s mutant imaginary might help us fathom how to flourish amid floods and contest the very human forces/forms that shape them. In Waterworld, the authors find queer elemental bodies collaborating with ecology and embracing their inherent impurities. This classic cli-fi film provides an important touchstone for a future in which dominant petro-masculine approaches to pelagic place are found to be drowned, dead ends. This article amplifies how mutant corporeal formations and elemental agencies in Waterworld swirl together to submerge systems of power and privilege and drench binaries. Ultimately, Waterworld’s queer ecology helps morph what and how it means to live in a flooded future as speculative seascapes seep into everyday contemporary climate life.
Of Mermaids, Manatees, and Metamorphoses
A remnant of old Florida, Weeki Wachee Springs is a state park near Tampa where one might encounter any number of fantastic things. Part nature preserve, part waterpark, Weeki Wachee offers eclectic adventures for the discerning visitor interested in floating, splashing, and paddling through its natural spring waters. Since 1947 the park has presented live mermaid shows in its underwater theater. The tradition continues today, even hosting “former mermaid shows” where mermaids of years past stage nostalgic performances.1
For some this may sound like kitsch, a tacky way to hang on to an old and outdated roadside attraction. In one sense, they may be right. Yet there is more to it. Weeki Wachee fashions itself as an environmental educational center with enchanted waters: “If you thought mermaids were just the lively imaginings of lonely sailors, think again—and come to Weeki Wachee Springs, the City of Live Mermaids, on the Gulf Coast of Florida.”2 Even though the springs are adjacent to paved intersections and traffic exhaust, there is something of a fluid feel to Weeki Wachee. Maybe it is, to adopt a seafaring grammar, the “castaway” feel. Weeki Wachee does not seem to fit in the contemporary surroundings. Yet it has not dried up completely. There are still the mermaid statues, markers of divine water spirits who look over snorkelers and swimmers. There are the manatees, ever so deliberate in their movements. For some, they are mesmerizing; for others, simply boring. Orienting to the manatee as a creature from another world and time, we3 draw on Anne Waldman’s verse:
As Waldman notes, manatees take time, a quality few appreciate. Despite endangered status, technocratic surveillance, and signs to slow down, speedboats motor over what some still pejoratively call “sea cows”—a label that amplifies a broader, violent rejection of the aquatic wisdom manatees possess. Associated with assumptions of witless bovine plodding, dull and dim, the manatee is situated in a space and time of justified—land-based—mass killing. Souped-up speedboats evoke an aquatic version of what Stacy Alaimo calls carbon masculinity: aggressive, toxic (in both cultural and material forms) masculinity expressed in colonial fantasies of control, and desires for absolute invulnerability and authority—over self, other bodies, and environments.5 Toxic performances related to extraction and expulsion of carbon (on land and in sea) are certainly present at Weeki Wachee. “Rollin’ coal” smokes out the springs with carbonistic claims for power over place and pavement.
Under the surface, the place loses some of its luster. Inner tubes fade under the summer sun, and sunscreen seeps into spring water. The bodies of water are not pure—nor are the watery bodies that populate the pools. The live mermaids plunging into the springs to perform are fantastical, monstrous, and mesmerizing like the manatees. Given that mermaids are also loosely connected to sirens and Sirenia, that makes sense. They draw visitors into the deep, a hydrological realm that exists between the ecological and the fantastic. Typically, the mermaids perform well-told tales such as The Little Mermaid.6 Embodying this myth, Weeki Wachee’s mermaids fuse natural freshwater with fleshy cultures of human and more-than-human origins. As such, we understand Weeki Wachee as both nostalgic and prophetic, in that we see it as a vision of what might yet become of us fleshy, soil-bound human animals who happen to walk, spin, dabble, dive, and perhaps destroy aquatic depths.
In Weeki Wachee, manatees and mermaids—both of the order Sirenia—swim together, displaying a sort of fluid solidarity, a not-quite-anthropomorphic aqua-political arrangement.7 We cannot help but be taken by the spectacle and the imagined entanglements between manatee and mermaid.8 The power of fabled sirens invites questions of how fabulous mutants and monsters emerge as guides for navigating relations with emergent ecologies and rising waterways. “Imagination is a performative survival technique,” writes Phaedra Pezzullo, even in forms and places that might be cast off or dismissed as lowbrow.9 “From where might we conjure ‘resources of hope,’” asks Pezzullo, especially for coasts of Red Tide, rivers of (micro)plastics, warming waves, streams of agricultural runoff, ripples of toxins, damned salmon, melting caps, and fracked-up aquifers?10 As Elizabeth DeLoughrey notes, sea level rise is one of the most visible signs of planetary derangement, one “catalyzing a new oceanic imaginary.”11 Like DeLoughrey, we are seeking oceanic futures, as they are allegorized in speculative fiction, works that blur past, present, and future. What kind of allegories might help us navigate rising waters and the monstrous mutations that will certainly follow? Who or what might guide us into a “waterworld of barges” and flotillas, helping us chart toxic waters and metamorphoses?12
Following mermaids and manatees, we float toward the queer, mutant ecologies of the castaways of Waterworld, the campy 1995 film about ecological refugees living on rafts, a petro-masculine cult that continues to smoke out the world to colonize dry land, and an amphibious mariner who breathes both air and water, a webbed-footed mutant between geology and hydrology.13 “Is it possible for a human being to dive into the water . . . to take up with dolphins and mermaids?”14 At Weeki Wachee, the answer is yes. For the rest of us, maybe not yet. Still, as Waterworld’s queer amphibian ontology suggests, fictive speculation may hold promise for becoming in rising seas.
Climate Fiction and Waterworld
Such speculation popularly materializes in blockbuster movies dazzling the silver screen. Climate change writer Michael Svoboda traced the climate fiction (cli-fi) genre back to its start in the 1980s. Overall, cli-fi films share common themes: flooding/sea level rise, extreme weather events, ice age, melting arctic, famine/drought, preclimatic stress disorder, and climate antagonists.15 Literature and culture scholar Ailise Bulfin also analyzed popular catastrophe narratives and their impact on climate change communication. Noting audience responses to The Day after Tomorrow, Bulfin argued that the film helped audiences imagine possible ecological futures and disasters we otherwise cannot access.16 Witnessing acts of climate destruction on the big screen makes future ramifications of climate change a visceral present concern.17 Cli-fi helps viewers imagine the large-scale effects of climate disaster yet-to-happen. As such, the messages of cli-fi films warrant further consideration.
Despite the transformation potential of cli-fi films, Waterworld is understudied in ecocritical scholarship. We found just one previous study analyzing Waterworld as an ecocritical text, examining the figural child and male protagonist for their relationship to a liminal coast.18 In comparison to contemporary depictions of postapocalyptic society, such as the often-studied narrative of Mad Max: Fury Road,19Waterworld’s application as a site for ecocritical reimagining is muddy. Waterworld is not welcoming to people of color. Protagonists and antagonists alike present as white, with visibly non-white characters scattered sparsely in the background. Additionally, violent masculinity abounds when the main character displays one-sided aggression and violence toward fellow survivors Helen and Enola, a woman and a child. It seems that, even in this watery world, the narrative still depends on a white masculine gaze. But Waterworld is not a white utopia; the world itself is deeply flawed, seeking revival. Speaking in this vein, in the spirit of a “yes, and” interpretation, we reach for what gender studies theorist Eve Sedgwick called a reparative reading.20 We are looking for survival and transformation in unlikely, counterintuitive, and fraught places.
The film itself is, admittedly, quite strange. Ever since Waterworld’s filming, reporters speculated about its potential. At the time, Waterworld was considered “the most expensive movie ever made,” with a reported budget of at least $172 million.21 In production, the film weathered major setbacks. With many scenes taking place on open water or a floating set, the crew struggled to set up and shoot footage.22 The image of camera operators drifting away, helpless against the current, speaks to the oversaturation of the film and its production. Water, an element wreaking havoc on the fictional survivors, vexed the crew behind the camera as well. The unruly waters took their toll on the production’s profit margin. After a mixed but generally generous critical reception and a hopeful opening weekend, the film did not earn on par with other epic blockbusters.23 In strictly financial terms, then, it seems Waterworld is an unabashed failure.
Reflecting on the more than two decades of special effects and developments that have accrued since Waterworld’s release, the film’s visuals have not stood the test of time. Ever since its debut, one prevailing opinion seems to be that it is not technically very good, but watchable nonetheless.24 This evokes the queer art of camp, succinctly described by Nicole Seymour as “I know it’s ugly/bad; I love it in spite of it being ugly/bad. I love it because it is ugly/bad.”25 As a campy piece of cli-fi, Waterworld gets its theoretical power from ironic subversion of expectations. By embracing a film that is, by popular accounts, low quality and outdated, we are engaging the film’s queer and critical theoretical potential for transformation. In pursuing this project, we attend to a film that, ironically, becomes less far-fetched as we progress with climate change unmitigated. That it was written off as a mediocre box-office flop, and yet the real-world conflict in its premise has not been resolved, amplifies the urgency of Waterworld’s message. No bodies are pure in Waterworld. The ones that survived have adapted and morphed into fluid, mutant forms.
Seeking More Fluid Forms
To trace the ebbing contours of more watery ways of being, we begin with Rosi Braidotti, who argues that metamorphosis is (and will be) the ontological condition in contemporary times.26 The need to speculate about morphic ecological identities is amplified only by the fact that, to cite Astrida Neimanis, we are watery bodies that “experience ourselves less as isolated entities, and more as oceanic eddies: I am a singular, dynamic whorl dissolving in a complex fluid circulation.”27 As Neimanis details, from cells to cerebral matter, fleshy bodies are all bodies of water, even as those watery bodies differ in relation to power, place, politics, and potential. As water works its way “down the esophagus, through the blood, the tissues, and to the index finger, the clavicle, and the left plantar fascia, it ensures that our being is always becoming . . . [t]ranslation, transformation.”28 Ebbing and flowing, perhaps we are already well on the way toward more webbed fingers and toes, toward what Alaimo labels “aqueous posthumanism,” a more liquid mode of transcorporeality.29 Transcorporeality, in which human and more-than-human bodies are intermeshed, is always betwixt the flux and flow of all manner of matter—organic and otherwise.
Manatees, mermaids, swimmers, and snorkelers are in the flow, among the flotsam and jetsam of being between springs and stop-and-go traffic. As such, it is important to remember that not all fluid formations are filled with political, ontological, or ecological possibility. For many, if not most, the flux and flow of the Capitalocene, as described by Donna Haraway, translates into deadly mixtures.30 Alaimo stresses that not all exposure is equal, particularly when the eddies are swirling with toxins and trash. Flows of inequity are described by Nancy Tuana, who outlines how black and brown bodies were abandoned to navigate Katrina’s floodwaters, which swirled with toxicity—in plastic and liquid forms.31 Tuana’s viscous porosity reminds us that “plastic becomes flesh” as interactions between matter and culture stick and slide slowly.32 Chemical contamination, rising temperatures and acidity, and synthetic seepage are all part of oceanic derangement.
Steve Mentz argues that living as inhabitants of drenched environments requires altering our fictions, replacing carbon-heavy masculine narratives of control with “less epic, more improvisational stories.”33 “We need [stories with] sailors and swimmers to supplement our oversupply of warriors and emperors,” writes Mentz, who makes the case that such aquatic figures can be found in all manner of literary compositions.34 Mentz’s argument is all the more important when considering Gil Branston’s case that ideologies of a Wild West continue to shape dominant visions of environmental catastrophe.35 Envisioned as a white, Western, wild space of hardened settler subjectivity, climate change becomes yet another manifestation of colonialism hinged to the love of petroleum-laced nationalism. Such visions are too attached to geographies that continue to ground the Anthropocene in geological terms, in the study and practice of surveying, extracting, and enforcing borders. And, as Kathryn Yusoff reminds us, geological approaches to the Anthropocene proclaim a universal language of human life that erases histories of plurality, power, property, slavery, conquest, and creation of human hierarchies.36
Perhaps this is why we are drawn to Mentz’s attentiveness to shipwrecks, as an “ecological fable” of “swirling loss of direction that is also a redirection, a sudden shock, a violent encounter with disorder.”37 According to Mentz, shipwrecks and shipwreck stories “add saltwater” to linear narratives of modernity, and the flow of global capitalism.38 They offer tales of briny fluctuation rather than geological surveys and separations. Shipwreck narratives of what Mentz labels the “Naufragocene” can counter or disrupt discourses of imperialism, providing ecological parables about the limits of mastery, about the possibility of “wet entanglements” and their “mortal limits.”39 Shipwrecks help us recognize the plurality of those entanglements and limits. For us, shipwrecks also involve castaways and castaway places. Castaways include strange strangers, bodies already on the fringes, resisters, refusers, or all those without property or higher (moral and material) grounds on which to stand. In their ranks, we might also find swimmers and sailors that are forgotten and exist outside and in-between humanity.
A Call for the Queer and the Monstrous
Thus we suggest a slight shift in emphasis—from human mariners and navigators to mutant swimmers with webs and gills, not-quite-human creatures who exist between surface and depth, who distrust geology and the land-based logics that come with it. In essence, we attempt to find allegiances with monsters and mutants who muck up desires for purity and petroleum, mutants like those populating lowbrow, castaway popular culture, where affective attachments are shaped and reshaped. Diving into what Judith/Jack Halberstam calls the low theory of pop culture, we find impure speculative forms that unmoor familiar allegories, only to center hope of mutant becomings of aqueous posthumanism that emerge after shipwrecks.40 It is in the depths of so-called bad environmental texts that we find potential in metamorphoses and porous entanglements with compromised watery worlds. The “absurdity, camp, frivolity, indecorum, ambivalence, and glee” of lowbrow texts, writes Seymour, help expand affective engagements with ecological relations, which allows more varied responses and interactions with environmental affairs.41
Seymour stresses that evaluating environmental texts according to how they succeed or fail in promoting ecological consciousness leaves out too many pieces and parts that might more ambivalently prompt wonder, care, anger, and a host of attitudes about ecological relations. Importantly, the low theory of indecorous, impure environmental texts is critical for developing queer ecology—an interdisciplinary framework that explores the knotted biopolitics of nature and sexuality, and the inherent queerness of ecology.42 Taking a cue from Seymour, we adopt a queer ecological orientation to the ways in which aquatic posthumanisms might be imagined. A queer ecological imagination helps us attend to the strange, essential vibrancy of human and more-than-human relations and, maybe, foster monstrous kinships and nonnormative futurities with more resilience.
The strange natures of monsters, following Jeffrey J. Cohen, erode or dissolve essentialized identities.43 As queer harbingers of category crises, they reveal how contingently constructed taxonomies shape social and ecological identities and relations. Monsters, especially mutants and shapeshifters of popular culture, evade enclosures, bifurcations, and taxonomies. They are forms that call into question assumptions of knowledge that can justify objectification and instrumentalization. As such, we understand monsters as part of queer ecology, which assumes that ecology is a vibrant plurality of sexuality, relationality, and identity.
We follow Joanna Roughgarden’s rainbow of evolution and find identity-morphing monsters at its ends.44 We are devoted to the queer exuberance of inherent sexual variation and plasticity beneath the surfaces of what we call nature.45 As well as the improper affiliations that develop, Haraway’s tentacular ones emerge.46 The arrival of monstrous, tentacular, Medusan figures, according to Haraway, is one response to the “Capitalocene,” the geological age shaped by accelerated, expansive, and unequal extraction, production, and consumption of ecologies.47 Speculative fictions feature mythic gorgons that destroy “the twenty-first century ships of the heroes on a living coral reef instead of allowing them to suck the last drop of fossil fresh out of dead rock.”48 Haraway finds potential in the chthonic ones—tentacular creatures that challenge skyward-looking, surface-loving Anthropos. Connections between gorgons and seas take us into what Haraway calls the Chthulucene, the age of sea creatures that surface in the wake of capitalism. Here, gorgons, octopi, vampire squids, and jellyfish guide us into underworlds and underwaters, from which messy, unfinished eruptions of life drown out narratives of progress and innovation. Monsters “lure us into less anthropocentric, less ‘grounded’ modes of knowledge, politics, and ethics.”49 They force us to confront anthropocentric limits of thought, speech, and life, immersing us in a “swirled mess of obligation,” in which we might feel out of our depth.50
Mutant kinships drench “the supposed natural necessity of ties between sex and gender, race and sex, race and nation, class and race, gender and morphology, sex and reproduction, and reproduction and composing persons.”51 For Haraway, speculative fiction provides one way to see the vibrant sympoietic crossings and multispecies assemblages that make up our ever-emergent and irreverent ecological selves.52 Speculative fiction, in the form of posthuman cinema, features entangled ontologies, situating human bodies in “the mesh,” as Timothy Morton describes it.53 In the mesh of posthuman film, permeability rules.54 The constant flux between inside and outside centers bodies as inescapably ecological.55 According to Eric White, such posthuman films affirm the “prospect of becoming” more monstrous, as something to be desired.56
Exploring the seascapes of popular posthuman cinema helps imagine more entangled, intimate, and erotic watery relations, making for a radically nonhuman aquatic ecology teeming with alien life worthy of consideration. Low theory submerges us in the deep, where we might find concern for creatures radically strange but certainly not inferior. To be certain, mutating cross-ontological relations morph dominant senses of water and water worlds, bringing queer ecological orientations that might animate deep devotions to sea monsters, and the strange oceanic encounters that complicate attachments to aquatic life.57 Water resists, transgresses, and floods over human geographies, stressing ways we stay afloat. Fictional monsters from the deep help show us that the “human form is simply one composition among many, not the measure of the world.”58 After all, in water worlds, the human mutates. From these watery ontologies, we orient toward the creatures of Waterworld59 as queer ecological imaginings of survival post-Anthropocene. It is time for forms that bob along in the wake of capitalism, morphing and transforming into mutant transcorporealities. To understand how to live and relate to a changing ecosystem, we turn to contaminated castaways as represented by the mutated Mariner, coal rolling Smokers, and thirsty atoll refugees.
Waterworld: An Ecocritical Textual Analysis
Preparing to perform ecocritical textual analysis of Waterworld,60 we approach this method based on previous research in critical textual analysis. Critical communication researcher Rachel A. Griffin’s textual analysis of The Help61 provides a methodological foundation. Griffin’s work outlines the preliminary steps for performing textual analysis: summarizing the film and applying relevant theory. The analysis itself considers narrative structure, or who “we are encouraged to root for.”62 The method is theoretically informed, text based, and connected to a critique of cultural power.
Ecocriticism also recognizes the danger of claiming a totalizing narrative. In his ecocritical textual analysis of representations of water, environmental humanities researcher Julian Yates was careful to avoid a grand narrative of the role of water. Textual representations can still be useful as “momentary hostings of other orders of finitude than our own.”63 Films like Waterworld offer glimpses into other orderings of pelagic life, but their visions are not definite prophecies. Ecocriticism, like critical research more broadly, is methodologically mindful of its own limitations while seeking foundational transformation.
By connecting Waterworld’s themes to theories of queer ecological bodies, we seek alternative representations of human-nature relationships and power structures. Throughout, we approach power in a Foucauldian sense, as “an ongoing discursive accomplishment” practiced and reified in relationships.64 Therefore the relationships between characters, including nature and natural elements, cultivate Waterworld’s narrative structure. Ultimately, we argue the film moralizes mutated forms of human-nature relationships and their underlying ontological transformation. Furthermore, no characters are pure in relation to nature, and no one is innocent in the world’s systems of power. To put the film back into its temporal context, Waterworld matters now precisely because it is dated. That it seems so laughable or campy, and yet the real-world conflict in its premise has not been resolved, underlines the urgency of new forms of responding to climate change that account for humanity’s responsibility and entanglement with the systems that perpetuate it.
Waterworld represents multiple versions of survival in a world overwhelmed by sea level rise.65 Viewers first meet a mysterious lone survivor who is never named but dubbed the Mariner. He lives in open ocean, captain of a tricked-out vessel equipped with a small lime tree, water filtration, and a rig to troll the ocean floor for scraps. After drifting to an atoll to trade, he is outed as a mutant for his gills and webbed feet. He is about to be executed when the atoll is attacked by Smokers, a rival group. In the chaos, atoll refugees Helen and Enola flee with the Mariner. Helen and Enola seek Dryland, a mythic last hope for survival. Enola, with the map tattooed on her back, is captured by land-greedy Smokers. The Mariner rescues her and destroys the Smokers’ base, an old oil tanker. The Mariner, Helen, and Enola, reunited with other atoll survivors, find Dryland, a lush island with evidence of Enola’s now-dead family. As the film ends with them settling into life on the island, the Mariner slips away, heading back to the open ocean.
We consider how types of human-nature relationships represented in the film evoke queer, entangled, and porous ecological bodies. Waterworld suggests that human-nature relationships need to transform to meet the challenges of climate change and rising seas. For each representation, we consider its role in the watery world’s power structures, its engagement with nature or natural elements, and its concept of the body. The film narrates how bodies need to be viscerally entangled with the elements, and old systems that oppress elemental bodies need to be left behind.
First, we address the Smokers, the most ardent ambassadors for a colonizing and mastering human-nature relationship. Starting with their petro-masculine way of life prepares us for a radical departure to other ontologies. Not choosing to adapt or transform in response to climate change, they cling to the vestiges of predisaster power, fueling their lifestyle with the last drops of gas available on the planet. Their very base, the rusty Exxon Valdez, invokes the capitalist power of controlling petroleum. Their leader, the Deacon, has professed himself “spiritual shepherd and dictator for life.”66 He claims spiritual inspiration from Saint Joe, the Exxon Valdez’s captain whose picture still hangs in the halls. The Smoker body, specifically this white male body, holds power over other human and elemental bodies. During a sermon to the crew, where he addressed the crowd with Jack Daniels in one hand and a cigarette in the other, he proclaimed his visions of Dryland: “If there’s a river, we’ll dam it. And if there’s a tree, we’ll ram it. . . . Dryland is not just our destination. It is our destiny.”67 Perpetuating a narrative of white men’s manifest destiny to expand and conquer all “untouched” lands, the Smokers’ society maintains an ideology of petro-masculine colonial consumption.
The Smokers demonstrate some ontological porosity even though they keep their distance from the water. They travel on jet skis, skimming along the surface of the ocean and kicking up water in their wake. Most frequently, entering the water means death for Smokers. In battle, once they fall into the water, they are not seen reemerging. Their porosity comes from their relationship to fire, instead. Smokers are nearly continually shown around fire, with fighter pilots even lighting up cigarettes mid-battle. Unfortunately for them, the new reality is not a fire world. Their fiery elemental bodies and avowed distance from the water surrounding them spell destruction. By maintaining a distant relationship with water, the Smokers hold on to a long-gone era of human-nature relationships. Their petro-masculinity is out of time. The Mariner drops a lit flare into their oil supply, sparking an explosion that sinks the Exxon Valdez. As the Smokers die in a string of explosions, the last monument to the long regime of oil dies with them.
Whereas the Smokers are minimally adapted to the omnipresent water, the survivors in the atoll represent significant adaptation to Waterworld without overarching transformation of power. When the Mariner arrives to trade, the atoll demonstrates a civility like a Wild West outpost. He is quickly greeted by the de facto town sheriff, who warns him not to start trouble and gives him just two hours to do his business and leave. The Mariner’s entry is justified by his utility—bartering with his valuable jar of dirt. The only parts of the atoll featured on-screen are the store and a small garden. Both these features of their environment serve vital subsistence roles, suggesting the atoll is governed by utility.
The people of the atoll demonstrate a severe intolerance toward difference, as evidenced by their reaction to the Mariner’s mutation. On revealing his gills, they mean to kill him, stopped only by the sheriff insisting he deserves proper justice. Arguing that he is “too strange for life,” their council rules to execute him “in the interest of public safety.”68 By holding the line about which bodies they will accept into their space, they mark their distinction from a new species better adapted to the world. Emphasizing the unnaturalness of the Mariner’s mutant body, the atoll people are firmly rooted in a preclimate climate reality—humans still dominate, and mutations for future survival are threats.
Nevertheless, the atoll survivors demonstrate several important adaptations that facilitate their survival. Their relationship to nature and concept of the body are much more fluid than the Smokers’. Freshwater is used as a standard converter of currency in their economic system, with the Mariner’s dirt being valued as quantities of “pure hydro.”69 They also serve up freshwater like alcohol, as the Mariner realizes when other survivors berate him to buy them a drink. Saltwater also serves an important purpose. When the Smokers raid the atoll, they are met with powerful blasts from water cannons. Despite the recognition of water as a vital resource, it still plays a utilitarian, rather than collaborative, role in their survival. As survivor Helen notes, they just “weren’t made for the sea.”70
Despite the relative distance they maintain toward the water around them, they frequently challenge the limits of ontological purity. The atoll garden is fertilized by a pool of green sludge, which also serves as the town’s graveyard. The Mariner observes a funeral in which an elderly woman is deposited into the concoction amid the last rites of “bones to berries, veins to vine.”71 This recycling of human matter makes the trees more chemically human, as the human body becomes “potential dirt,” in the words of the Mariner.72 Recycling and contaminating the human body in this way marks a considerable innovation, while the Smokers’ reliance on fire continues themes of Western destruction and consumption. Where the Smokers cling to fire, the atoll survivors rely on earth and water. In the end of their narrative, they make it to Dryland and presumably settle there. While unwilling or unable to live on water, their behavioral and cultural adaptations to Waterworld signal the beginnings of a porous mutant ontology.
In Waterworld, it is certainly better to be on the run from the fire and to seek a return to Dryland not for its resources, but its safety. Still, the addition of the Mariner’s relationship to water brings in another layer of complexity. In the apocalyptic society, the Mariner is at risk as a markedly mutated body but still has economic and gendered power over others. In the other survivors’ eyes, his collection of material artifacts makes him rich. Passing for a while as a human male, he is free to travel without the threat of gender-based violence, often being complicit in it himself. Atoll elders attempt to include him in their heterosexual reproduction, begging him to impregnate one of the local girls. When he refuses, his body is examined under the suspicion of deviance. Finding gills, they declare him a mutant, a queer body not fit for their society.
While the Mariner generally utilizes the cover of masculine privilege for the first half of the film, he suddenly rejects this power arrangement by reneging on a barter he established with a drifter. He had agreed to give the drifter thirty minutes of access to Helen’s body, without her consent. Before the assault is shown, the Mariner intervenes, attacking the drifter. From this point on, his relationship to atoll survivors Helen and Enola changes. He is less antagonistic toward them, sharing his treasured crayons with Enola and teaching her how to swim. While he does later use violence to infiltrate the Smoker base and rescue Enola, his heroic potential is more solidly fermented when he ends the displays of one-sided violence.
The Mariner’s relationship with water is the most collaborative, as his mutated fish body might suggest. He dives and swims for long periods of time to scavenge the ocean floor. He facilitates others’ education about water as well, taking Helen and Enola underwater. While teaching Enola to swim, he instructs her to “let the water tell [her] arms and legs how to move.”73 The Mariner listens to the water, communicating with it in a more nuanced way than the Smokers who stay on its surface and the atoll’s inhabitants who deploy it only as they see fit. Most tellingly, the Mariner is always eager to return to the sea. He hurries to leave the atoll after his business is done and ultimately rejects a life on land, even though it would bring human companionship and stability. His sense of belonging is elsewhere; the open water is his space. Rejecting both human civilization and conventions of naming, the Mariner’s way of being in Waterworld is highly queer. His body is porous enough, breathing in seawater. His behavioral adaptations are all the more so, as he embraces the impurity of being a mutant and seeks his own way of life.
Waterworld follows the Mariner’s voyages from open to close, tracking his character development from gruff loner to sympathetic nomad. The Mariner is a mutant ahead of his time. His body, suspected to be the first of its kind, offers the ontologically challenging prospect of posthuman life. Linked to water where humans avoid it, the Mariner suggests the impossibility of dominant and distanced relationships to nature. Along the way, his queer ecological body resists the sunken human civilization, scavenging and trading to get by but ultimately setting the Exxon Valdez ablaze in a highly symbolic disavowal of capitalist expansion and consumption. The ending aerial shot pans back from Helen and Enola on the cliff to show the Mariner sailing away, widening the audience’s perspective and keeping his watery existence in our gaze even as humans return to Dryland.
Epilogue: Reconciling Mermaids and Mutants
Alternative ways of being and relating to the environment emerge through this analysis of an early cli-fi film. By taking a weird and often over-the-top approach to imagining climate change, Waterworld looks beyond strict limits to the human form. While the various groups of survivors cope differently with their restructured space, they all must reckon with the onslaught of water one way or another. For the Mariner, water is a comfortable home. For the atoll survivors and the Smokers, water is a commodity and a challenge to overcome. In both the latter cases, an antagonistic and detached relationship with water proves disastrous. Such an arrangement of human-nature relationships can no longer function. These outmoded forms of elemental relationships spell trouble for social power systems as well. In Waterworld, elemental exploitation and human inequality go hand in hand. By representing a collaborative and porous relationship with water as heroic and advantageous, Waterworld suggests that adapting away from patterns of consumption that perpetuate systems of elemental inequality is not only admirable but also necessary.
Of course, it bears considering how Waterworld also functions as a masculine power fantasy. In this world, there are no consequences for choosing to violate another’s bodily autonomy and no higher authority to judge the Mariner for doing so. This frames his decision not to sexually assault Helen as upsettingly heroic. When she later asks why he restrained himself, he says it was because he knew she “didn’t really want it.”74 By showing the basest consideration and respect for others’ consent, he is already leagues ahead of most other Waterworld men. This masculine-centric perspective makes the film’s divergence from a narrative of Western conquest even more significant. That a film this steeped in masculine autonomy and heroic fantasies finds a way to critique overconsumption of natural resources approaches transcendence.
Where the film reproduces a white masculine ideal of survival, we hesitate to laud the film for its transgressive representations of the human body. Nevertheless, its attempts to contest the Mariner’s body as a site of white male power are an engaging invitation to reimagine life during climate change. Here, perhaps the whiteness of the Mariner is essential. Waterworld is not merely perpetuating a fantasy of white expansion and power; it is critiquing it. Where the Smokers fervently cling to systems that keep them at the top, the Mariner challenges his own claims to power by adapting his relationships with water and other survivors. Waterworld calls for those who might relate to the Mariner, for their privileges of power from whiteness or masculinity, to rethink their approach to living with a world caught up in the elements. The proliferation of such speculative stories helps us take another look at Weeki Wachee, especially at the bleached white statues at the gate. That whiteness cannot be ignored.
By marking Waterworld’s engagement with whiteness and Western orientations toward power, we situate the film as a potential entry point for alternative ontologies that put bodies in collaborative relationships with space. We find that Waterworld transforms the nature-culture binary by positioning a mutated, fluid embodiment as its protagonist. Directing viewers to root for a recycling mutant, Waterworld urges us to consider alternative ways of being to survive climate change. A film that is admittedly bad and outdated does not look any less relevant to us in 2020. Waterworld’s Mariner and warring Smokers may become eerily familiar as years pass from the film’s release and climate change looms large. In fact, given the ways in which exhaust from combustible engines wafts around Weeki Wachee and its mermaids, it is hard to tell where Waterworld begins and Weeki Wachee ends. Smokers and coal rollers, alike, make sure that it is hard to breathe—above and below the surface. Smokers and coal rollers, alike, make sure that toxic, petro-masculinity chokes off possibilities for more fluid ecological relations and identities.
Still, there is hope at the end of Waterworld. When the Mariner sets his course into open waters, we might try to imagine what is next for the mutant. Where will his rickety boat take him next, and what, or who, will he encounter in the expansive pelagic horizon? As is often the case with heroes setting out into horizons, they set out alone, a vision we certainly want to trouble. Any form of becoming requires interaction and entanglement. Gesturing once more to Alaimo’s transcorporeality, becoming emerges through visceral encounters.75 Is it possible, then, to imagine something a little deeper? Certainly, there are other creatures below the surfaces that might provide some affinity, some other cross-ontological relationality. Perhaps the Mariner will start to drift with Haraway’s tentacular ones. Maybe they form a monstrous swarm that finds refuge from Smokers of the Capitolocene.
All of this is to say that the Mariner is not enough. Drifting through Waterworld is a start, but only that. We must go deeper, follow the tides further, even, and especially, if there be monsters ahead. To contest the dominance of Smokers, we might need to go off the deep end. Here, we might imagine a kind of marooned collective taking shape, like the kind that Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker describe in The Many-Headed Hydra, a monograph tracing how the myth of Hercules versus the hydra was mapped onto European imperial conquests.76 In the telling, Hercules represented, of course, British and Dutch forces. The hydra, the ever-proliferating monster of dark waters and dark continents, was made up of the multitude of castaways—“dispossessed commoners, transported felons, indentured servants, religious radicals, pirates, urban laborers, soldiers, sailors, and African slaves . . . ever-changing heads of the monster.”77 In the inspiration of Linebaugh and Rediker’s hydra, perhaps we can speculate that a Waterworld sequel includes more thalassic marooned communities. If it were ever to be produced.
While we follow our Mariner, we also recognize that putting too much faith in one figure, even if a mutant, is dangerous.78 Monsters can be conjured to maintain hegemonic sea power and can be implicated as touchstones for classically retold stories of national identity associated with colonialism and conquest. We must consider how The Little Mermaid story performed at Weeki Wachee is interconnected with Dutch colonialism, just an ocean away.79 The performances of the Dutch tale by Weeki Wachee mermaids affirm not mutants but narrow notions of humanity and the petro-masculine desire for land. Amid these material and sociological consequences, watching the Mariner fade into the distance seems fitting. His mutant fish-man body should only be the start of expanding pluralities of aquatic allegories, monsters, and mutants, of more watery Anthropocenes yet to come.
Yusoff argues that the human Anthropocene elides how geology constructs racial divisions between human beings and those who were classified as mere matter.80 Thus the call for “a billion missing articulations of geologic events” resonates as we consider practices for human and more-than-human justice.81 To break open hardened earth is to let loose the archives, voices, and stories buried beneath human landscapes. Looking for watery new bodies is, in Yusoff’s words, “desedimenting the forms of inhuman historicity.”82 In our case, the next step, or next stroke, is to search the flotsam and jetsam of water worlds for more plural aquatic posthumanisms, to seek more radically mutant waterways. As the Mariner sails from view, we might follow, drifting (not without direction) toward shipwrecks that are darker and less human. Such is The Prophecy of Fabrice Monteiro, photographer of Afro-futurist postapocalyptic worlds.83
The creature of “The Prophecy” is not like Waterworld’s Mariner. It is not a little mermaid either. This mutant may be a castaway, perhaps from the wrecked ship pictured in the background. Imagined as such, they have been beneath the waves in the wreckage for some time, long enough for hand to morph into claw, for oil and plastic to become skin, for feet and legs to become waves—waves of vinyl. While the Mariner’s gills suggest an ocean that supports life and breathing, the mutant from “The Prophecy” suggests something more ominous—an ocean in which the Smokers have won, in which colonial petro-masculine desires have been fulfilled to the last. Ecological metamorphoses in this waterworld require the capacity to breath under oil as much as under water. It requires literal plasticity, a toxic transcorporeality.
How to respond to such a sea creature? There is a note of royalty, judging by shelled jewelry on the left arm and the spiked ruff framing the creature’s face. Yet a skeletal gull in the left hand suggests something sinister. The death of purity? Even if the bird suggests a curse, it might also be a gift, a found remnant of what lived prior. This gift might also be an invitation—an invitation to embrace them as quite simply another little mermaid, one that challenges our devotions to the one figured from Dutch stone. That little mermaid, this monster suggests, is no more. That one, this monster suggests, was too pure anyway. Not strange enough to be of and from the deep. That one, this monster suggests, was too white, too colonial, and too pure. Bringing petroleum waste back to shores, this monster confirms that the little mermaid near the rocky Copenhagen shoreline is, indeed, gone. All that is left is the statue, a memorial to what was. “I am what is,” this emergence might say.
It may be an unsettling sentiment but living in an epoch of shipwrecks is exactly that. Here, then, is another monstrous guide for living in rising waters. Here lies a guide who reminds us that the bodies bound, thrown overboard, choked, wrecked, and forgotten in a drowned world will always return. With Leilani Nishime and Kim D. Hester Williams, this guide reminds us, once again, to “recognize the ‘slow death’ perpetuated by the gears of capitalist machinery rather than be numbed into apathy through the steady creep of environmental disaster or our dissociation from ecological crisis that occurs ‘elsewhere’ or ‘out there.’”84 This is not a dismal reminder. Nor is it hopeless. It is an invitation to reconsider the kinds of stories needed for navigating what is, and what is to come, just over the horizon. It is an invitation to reconsider the stories, figures, and forms that lie beneath—those that help us confront just what has become of us.
We would like to thank the journal’s reviewers and editorial team for their constructive support of this article. We also would like to thank Phaedra Pezzullo, who inspires our incessant commitment to monsters and the places where we encounter them. We previously presented an earlier iteration of this manuscript at the Conference on Communication and the Environment in 2019. Some material from this manuscript was also included as part of a master’s thesis, “Elemental Climate Disaster Texts and Queer Ecological Temporality,” by L. D. Mattson, University of South Florida, 2020.
The pluralizing grammar is intentional. As coauthors, we understand our writing, and intellectual labor more broadly, as a deeply shared endeavor. Thus at one level the use of we accents the collaborative, collective nature of the work.
Alaimo, Exposed, 2. Alaimo’s carbon masculinity is related to Cara Daggett’s concept of “petro-masculinity,” described as anxious expressions of authoritarianism via violent devotion to petroleum. See Daggett, “Petro-Masculinity.”
At another level, the intentional use of we signals an acceptance of our own multispecies entanglements and constitutions. In Haraway’s words, “to be one is always to become with many.” We understand authors and readers as coinhabiting a space—even if on the page, finding commons, being taken in, implicated in a collective production of subjectivity. This recognizes how subjectivity might be a shared project of being immersed in a shared watery world, one in which staying afloat is about knotting together a “we,” even if for a few moments. As this article emphasizes, porosity, exposure, mutation, and monstrosity all challenge heteronormative heroic models of singular navigation. We see a contingent “we” as necessary for such a challenge. See Haraway, When Species Meet, 3.
Michael Richardson described this present experience of future distress as climate trauma (“Climate Trauma”).
Mentz, Shipwreck Modernity, xxiii.
Myra Hird uses nonlinear evolution to fashion a “naturally queer” ecology (“Naturally Queer”).
In complicating the Anthropocene, Haraway notes that assigning culpability to humans flattens implications in global climate change. Not all human bodies carry the burden equally, not all reap the economic rewards equally. To say that current epochs of ecological devastation is “human” elides important differences in power and the different scales of human participation in production of toxins and mass-produced death.
Haraway cautioned as much in Staying with the Trouble , warning against adopting a singular ontological spearhead.
Fabrice Monteiro’s photographic essay The Prophecy imagines materially morphed, monstrous forms emerging from deranged ecologies. As a prophecy, the photos envision what is to come, and who we might encounter at sites of ecological derangement. While a number of photos feature watery beings, our focus is on the second in the series, found at Monteiro 2015.