Starring Kevin Costner, Dennis Hopper, and Jeanne Tripplehorn. Rated mature.

Now playing at Granville 7, Station Square 5,and others

Bond foreshadowed it, Star Wars defined it, Raiders elaborated on it, and T2 raised it to the level of NASA?funded technological extravaganza: the Summer Action Movie. It's what studios want–even (or especially) the ones who say, "Yes, we were a tad disappointed with the gross but proud to have supported an artist's vision." And it's what we–the people who see these suckers seven, eight, 15 times–want.

Waterworld is a laudable attempt to refresh a genre grown stale through excessive exposure to 40-something Republican steroid freaks. Although the dramatic themes and characterizations are disappointingly familiar, the novel setting leads to some brilliant image-creation. From the first shot, when the Universal globe logo dissolves into the shoreless blue of this seaborne Road Warrior, Waterworld presents one masterful production design after another. And thanks to director Kevin Reynolds (who quit during editing) and moreso to cinematographer Dean Semmler, calm, sun-dappled blue water never seemed so menacing. It's ocean as desert wasteland and killing field.

Waterworld is set on an Earth, centuries hence, that has been completely flooded by the effects of global warming on the polar ice caps. Humankind has been reduced to a few miserable bands clinging to artificial reefs in destitution and misery, prey to hunger, dehydration, and a swaggering pirate called the Deacon (Dennis Hopper, in an even larger than usual performance). With access to oil and some of the old technology, the Deacon rules the waves. That is, until a mysterious loner arrives to slay the Deacon, lead the people from watery bondage, and create an unprecedented amount of bad publicity for Universal's accounting department and movie budgets in general. (Because budget-bashing is the shallowest and least-relevant criticism that a movie fan could ever make–ticket prices are the same no matter what the producers spent–nothing more will be said about this.)

Kevin Costner is Mariner, an amphibious mutant and skipper of a futuristic trimaran, which is the central focus of the movie's sizeable gee-whiz factor. Mariner can make his ship dance across the water, deploying secret weapons, outrunning jet-skis, and generally kicking butt. He is less competent dealing with humans; not surprising, because his mutant state is loathsome to them. This makes Mariner an unusually cold and prickly protagonist throughout the film, which is another break from the genre.

Despite being wildly implausible, both in terms of scientific concept and its own narrative structure, Waterworld is an absorbing and occasionally amazing spectacle. The quality of design, filming, lighting, stunt work, and special effects are the best that Hollywood can deliver. There are scenes in Waterworld that have never been tried before in a live-action film. And, because they will likely never be tried again, you might as well see them now.