Although I think about movies all the time, I don't think about Waterworld that often. In the mid 90s that movie was everywhere, because it was such a troubled production, and it cost so much money, and Kevin Costner was such a huge star that got humbled so quickly - of course people couldn't help but rubberneck at it. But since then so many other movies have come and gone that had similar problems, and now that the go-to whipping boy for overambitious flops is John Carter Waterworld has kind of been forgotten.
Still, I couldn't help but think about Waterworld when I was watching Young Ones, because the two films are perfect opposites. Where Waterworld is about a world that's all water, Young Ones is about a world where everyone's dying of thirst. Where Waterworld is anchored by Kevin Costner, who tends to stoically underplay, Young Ones is anchored by Michael Shannon, who is known for his manic intensity. The two movies contrast in almost every imaginable way, whether it's their scope (global in Waterworld, a single family in Young Ones), their tone (bombastic for Waterworld, quietly intense for Young Ones), or their approach to spectacle (Waterworld is full of cartoony violence, while Young Ones only has a few bursts of memorably grim violence.)
Young Ones is about a father named Ernest Holm who is trying to protect his two teenaged children in a world where rain has stopped falling and civilization has mostly collapsed. The film is slightly futuristic - Holm has access to a robotic donkey that's out of reach of our current technology, but for the most part he gets through life the old fashioned way, by striking deals to do hard labor in exchange for the water he needs for his farm. Ernest doesn't seem to worry about repairing the damage the apocalypse has done to the planet, he just wants to get enough hydration so that he can eke out a living. Besides, he's got less abstract problems to deal with - like making sure that his daughter stops seeing the motorcycle riding jackass that's courting her.
As the film progresses, it's scope narrows. Once Young Ones is done establishing it's world, it then focuses on a battle between the father and the suitor over who is going to be the family's patriarch. At that point, it turns from being a futuristic story to a very old story, one about how we reap what we sow. Some of it's storytelling choices are a little shopworn, but they're also compelling: this is the sort of morality play that's been around since Biblical times, but that's fine, because those sort of stories will always resonate.
That decision to go smaller and more personal is ultimately what makes Young Ones more compelling than Waterworld. (Admittedly, that's not the highest bar in the world, but stay with me here.) Where Waterworld is about a loner who gets drawn into a community so he can be their savior, the opposite happens in Young Ones, where a family is slowly whittled down by tragedy and where no one comes out clean. Waterworld becomes less and less interesting as it becomes more of a generic action spectacle, but Young Ones becomes more and more compelling as it begins to foreground it's characters and background it's fantastic setting.
Of course, the ultimate contrast between the two films is the size of their media presence: Waterworld was a media story for years, and then it was released into a massive amount of theaters. In contrast, Young Ones is a movie that most people probably haven't heard of and it barely got released in North America. Eventually, that dichotomy might work in Young Ones' favor. Waterworld was so dogged by all the negative attention that it couldn't salvage it's reputation as a massive flop even after it broke even. In contrast, I could easily see Young Ones slowly growing by word of mouth into a solid cult film. It's a movie that places a Coen brothers-esque story in a well realized sci-fi setting, and both of those things appeal to film nerds. (It also helps that it's good enough that it's worth recommending.) The ultimate contrast might be yet to come - maybe Young Ones will become a movie that people remember, long after Waterworld has been forgotten.