During the 1990s Kevin Costner starred in two Hollywood post-apocalyptic blockbusters: Waterworld (1995) and the less financially successful The Postman (1997). They are throwbacks to the mid 1980s, to the tongue-in-cheek fun and thrills of Mad Max: Beyond the Thunderdome (1985) and even the choreographed explosions of Duran Duran’s ridiculous Wild Boys pop video (1984) — but these over-ambitious 1990s films take themselves to seriously, feel mechanical, laden with pretension, or simply reek of sentimental American patriotism. They are cultural artefacts rather than epoc-making movie moments from the 1990s — The Postman in particular stands out for all the wrong reasons with its saccharine message, and bad costumes. There are bad costumes in Waterworld, to compliment the hero’s terrible sea shell ear rings, and fish skin jacket, and disappointingly the plot is Mad Max: Beyond the Thunderdome on water.
For what is quite a straightforward film nothing really gets studied in depth. There’s very little exploration of how the world became so watery apart from a scene where the hero takes the love interest to see a city submerged on the sea floor; a generic 1990s American city with a typical central business district crammed with skyscrapers. She is in a diving bell, but he swims alongside, because he has gills and webbed toes, a mutant of some kind. But the film never adequately explains this. Are there others like him? Does he not want to find other people like him? If he is so well adapted to water why does he travel on the surface in a yacht?
The Postman is a story about a man reconnecting with the truth, with love, and with other people — he starts as a wondering actor, then gets forced into a ‘brutal’ militaristic clan: he escapes and uses a discarded postman’s uniform to convince people that the USA still exists, a ploy to get food and shelter. That lie becomes the basis for a new hope — fairness and peace — which leads to the repressive, fascistic clan boss being killed, and the people being reunited. It’s a celebration of the working class, of the working class man: the humble postman who keeps society together.
Waterworld is a quest for dry land, but once found it feels empty. Both these stories have disappointing endings: the real climax in Waterworld takes place on an old oil tanker (the Exxon Valdez, a nod to 1990s environmental concerns). The discovery of land is made without the Mariner: a tattoo on a young girl’s back, deciphered by the balloon pilot. The story doesn’t properly explain the map, or why the tattoo is on her back.
Once the quest has been attained the Mariner escapes back to the sea, desperate to evade an adult relationship or having parental responsibility. It feels unsatisfactory. Is he forced to go back to sea because of his mutation? Where is the pain or emotional dilemma? Yes, he delivers the woman to land but if he is ultimately incapable of having a relationship with the woman, most of the films work chronicling their connection feels pointless.
Near the end of The Postman, the hero’s partner gives birth to a baby girl: then the story cuts to the future where the daughter is unveiling a statue of her father. It’s a visual way of saying he became a legend, but it makes adds an extra level of complication.
Both films celebrate the resilience and resourcefulness of the loner hero, and the development of his emotional relationship through a love interest (plus a child in Waterworld). They celebrate the determination of people to carry on living in a tough post-apocalyptic environment, and in the case of The Postman the hope and community of American patriotism. The films come with warnings about heavy-handed bad guys who steal from and murder honest, hard working folk. The heroes must provide leadership to bring down the evil villain, which they both achieve — but the stories are over-ambitious and lack depth.