“The future… The polar ice caps have melted, covering the earth with water. Those who survived have adapted, to a new world.”
In Waterworld (1995), extreme global warming has caused the polar ice caps to melt. The Earth has flooded over, and survivors were forced to adapt to a new world, living on floating communities known as atolls. Amidst this, we are introduced to the Mariner, a lone drifter, who ultimately employs his survivalist knowledge to protect Enola, the perceived hope of survival, and her guardian, Helen, from antagonistic pirates, known as the Smokers. This is because Enola is rumoured to have the map to the mythical Dryland imprinted on her back, the only hope for survival in a resource-depleting world, and whoever who finds Dryland, will enjoy unimaginable riches and pleasure (Oswalt, 2016).
Knowing this, we immediately perceive the Mariner to be Waterworld’s hero, especially since this narrative is in line with the popular movie trope of the strong and burly man being the saviour of the people. However, the Mariner does not directly contribute to the salvation of the people, as it is Enola, who holds the literal map to survival.
This contrast between the role of Enola and the Mariner is unique and intriguing. Although, the Mariner is assumed to be one of the heroes due to the protection he provides Enola and Helen, it is Enola, who was gifted the map to the metaphorical Garden of Eden, who arguably holds the most importance in the film. This illustrates a deficiency in both Enola and the Mariner, where the Mariner, who has the agency and means to forge his own path, has no clear destination or key to survival. On the other hand, although Enola lacks ability and has little to no power in the film, she holds the key to the future. It is this deficiency that thrusts the film forward, and results in the discovery of Dryland.
The fact that Enola is still a child, and that outside of children’s films where the child is rarely the main character, makes Enola’s portrayal in Waterworld distinctive from other films. Enola’s lack of capability and independence is congruent with other children, but it does not undermine her role. Hence, both Enola and the Mariner hold much importance to the film’s plot, and I claim that Waterworld illustrates a rare genre of having multi-protagonists as it would be a fallacy to undermine either of their roles in the film.
There is a lack of literature illustrating the importance of Enola in the movie. By writing this article, I hope to shed light on why we should not discount her role in this film. Importance does not necessarily determine the main character, and heroism and being the protagonist can be mutually exclusive. The role of the child is important and can make the difference in any situation, despite certain deficiencies that they may have.
The Portrayal of the Mariner
The Mariner is the stereotypical hero of Hollywood – male, brawny and competent. The use of the Mariner as the major protagonist instead of Enola can be rationalised due to the gender rights of the era. The second-wave feminism movement that occurred from the 1960s to early 1980s arguably helped gender rights to be more liberal. However, it was not as successful as hoped, as feminism was considered a form of etiquette instead, and attitudes were not altered as they desired. In addition, the legislations made was based on the premise that the women needed protection from men due to them being physically weaker, and hence powerless.
Hence, the Mariner is the major protagonist due to the large amount of power he holds, especially over Enola and Helen.
Firstly, his power can be portrayed by how he only answers to himself. Him being a lone wolf allows him great independence, and his voyaging experiences enables him to survive on his own. His individualistic survivalist character can be seen by how he channels fluids around his trimaran, which portrays the ongoing effort of the Mariner to establish a stable identity and domain away from the indistinguishable seascape. The resources and items he forages from the bygone, sunken world facilitates his independence as it provides him with economic power over the atolls’ survivors, who lack resources. He operates his trimaran alike an extension of his own body, where the boat tilts and swerves in response to his own actions. This personification of the trimaran creates the idea that the boat is his private possession.
Hence, both girls are intruders into his ‘kingdom’. After allowing both Helen and Enola to board his ship, he takes advantage of the sea’s abject qualities, to establish dominance. He throws Enola overboard and threatening to abandon both passengers within hostile waters when they tamper with his trimaran. Furthermore, at one point of the movie, he symbolically cuts short both Enola’s and Helen’s hair, creating an image of submission to him. The Mariner protects himself and his home first, and this treatment of water, possessions and others, creates a “heavily exclusionary place-based sense of self” (Wintle, 2013). That being said, the Mariner may only be helping the two girls because he is largely a misanthropist, and by assisting Helen and Enola in their quest to find Dryland will allow him to remove them as his ‘burdens’.
The Mariner thus has much power. He is self-sufficient and knowledgeable, and in the end, despite his individualism, he still saves the damsels, being Enola and Helen, from distress, namely the Smokers. In retrospect, the continuous acts of bravery from the Mariner illustrates his hidden heroism, where under his hard and rugged exterior, he does care about the fate of Enola and Helen. This allows him to eventually, gains some sense of reconciliation for his previous actions.
However, there is a unique paradox portrayed in the protagonist, he is a hero but not necessarily the one that Waterworld needed. This is because the Mariner is unable to promise a better life for the survivors. Hence, he has less importance in the film, despite the attempts to instil more importance in his role with the large verbal space and screen-time he has. Waterworld needed a way out of their resource-poverty, and the Mariner could only rescue them in the short-term, by fighting off pirates, but was unable to guarantee any long-term survival. Therefore, the Mariner has ample aptitude but lacks any real solution to help Waterworld prosper.
Enola, a Child and a Resource
This brings me to the argument that Enola, is the most important character in Waterworld, as she can promise a better future for the people.
Enola is an apocalyptic and environmental symbol, whose name parallels that of Enola Gay, the B-29 that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and that has been a symbol of that apocalyptic beast in the last half of this century. However, in Waterworld, Enola delivers not the apocalypse, but escape from it; not nuclear annihilation, but the key to paradise (Oswalt, 2016). Hence, the usage of Enola as the name could be reflective of the importance of her role in Waterworld. Just like the atomic bomb, Enola had the power to change Waterworld, either for the better or for the worse. Hence, her role as the minor protagonist is multi-faceted.
The duality of Enola is that she is more than just a child in a post-apocalyptic world. She symbolises the future of civilisation.
On the surface, Enola’s role is clearly that of being a child. Her adolescence and childishness, wherein the film she was considered an annoyance by the Mariner due to her constant talking being “like a storm when [she’s] around.” Enola only wishes to have fun, and does not understand her own objectification, where she is figuratively wrestled between the Smokers and the Waterworld civilisation due to her map tattoo.
The fact that Enola’s name reversed spells out ‘alone’ reinforces the idea that she is alone in her own world, especially since she only interacts with adults in the film. She is not concerned about the map on her back as she lacks the knowledge about the ‘utopian’ Dryland. Furthermore, she is unable to read the map and does not consciously remember the flora and fauna she draws. The only confirmation of Dryland’s existence and location depends upon adults’ efforts to decipher her markings, causing her to face the possibility of total objectification. Hence, Enola is disjointed from the search for Dryland as she does not truly understand the importance of the place and is unaware of her own ability to bring salvation.
Enola as a child is irrelevant. She is merely an asset, as her physical body holds more importance than her life. In fact, the Smokers’ leader, regards the girl as a mere tool in his quest to despoil Dryland. At one point, the Smokers suggests skinning her so that they can stretch the skin to see the map better.
This objectification can be further explored in the idea of patriarchal Western cartographic practices (Wintle, 2013) where the idea of a body as a map has long been used in cultural myths and national iconology, and more commonly, the idea of the woman being synonymous with the terrain.
Enola can also be considered the metaphorical Mother Nature. In the mythological sense, Enola is likely to be considered the ‘mother of the new civilisation’, due to her possible role in repopulating the Earth, which corresponds to the undertones of infertility from inbreeding in the film (Olson, 2015). On the other hand, Enola is Mother Nature as she promises resources to the people and eventually reunites civilisation with the natural earth.
These two roles result in an absence of agency for Enola. Her adolescence weakens her authority and independence. She is constantly under the care of Helen, who never lets her wander off alone. In addition, the people of Waterworld hold greater importance on her tattoo than of her person, causing her to be constrained to the role of being an object before being a subject. In fact, the way she is held in reverence by the survivors is akin to how one would treat an artefact. Enola-as-a-map is a precious resource to Waterworld, and throughout the film, she is always escorted to places by an adult. The only time Enola was alone was when she was held hostage by the Smokers, which reflects her dependence on others to save her.
Enola is not a hero as she lacks the ability and noble qualities embodied by them. Nevertheless, she holds great importance in the film, and is Waterworld’s secondary protagonist. Without Enola, the possibility of the atoll inhabitants surviving is bleak, due to infertility and lacking resources. After all, the Mariner is only the means of transport and protection for the characters, and it is only Enola, or more specifically her body, who can promise hope for a better future. Thus, she is a necessary part of the post-apocalyptic Waterworld.
Therefore, there is a challenge between heroism and importance. Although both Enola and the Mariner are protagonists in the film, the driving force provided by the two characters differ. Enola’s role demands to be a protagonist due to the large influence she has on the main plot, whereas the Mariner is a protagonist because he is the supposed hero of Waterworld, having the ability to protect others. This reinforces the deficiencies in both of their roles. Enola and the Mariner are almost two sides of the same coin, where they both have a large role to play in Waterworld, but respectively, they lack the ability to impact Waterworld on their own. This complementary aspect is what demands Enola and the Mariner to work together to bring about salvation in the film. Therefore, both Enola and the Mariner are protagonists and are complementary characters.
In conclusion, Enola and the Mariner are connected to each other. The deficiencies in both of their characters can be seen as puzzle pieces that only when put together, will achieve the end goal – finding Dryland. It is the complementary aspects of the two protagonists that advances the film, as if alone, neither of them would be unable to achieve any considerable success.
Olson, D. C. (2015). The Child in Post-apocalyptic Cinema. Lanham: Lexington Books.
Ostwalt, C. E. (2016). Visions of the End: Secular Apocalypse in Recent Hollywood Film. Journal of Religion & Film, 2(1), article 4.
Wintle, H. (2013). ‘Everything Depends on Reaching the Coast’: Intergenerational Coastward Journeys in Contemporary Post-apocalyptic Cinema. Continuum, 27(5), 676-689.