The 1995 movie Waterworld opens with a spinning globe showing the ice caps receding and the continents flooding. “The future,” says the unnecessary, disembodied ’90s narrator. “The polar ice caps have melted, covering the Earth with water.” The camera pans down from the heavens, and we watch Kevin Costner’s unnamed protagonist drink his own piss.
It’s a handy summary of the movie as a whole: a condescending voice tells you something you already know, then you watch something unbearably stupid.
The Postman (1997) plays it the opposite way, with the same result. Costner, again in the role of an unnamed hero, wanders “the Great Salt Flats of Utah” with his mule, bouncing on an abandoned diving board in a desert. Another disembodied narrator explains that “the last of the great cities died” after a war, then plagues, a three-year winter, and a sixteen-year drought. Then there’s a lion pawing a tin can in the rain.
Both films belong in ’90s film infamy, where they safely resided until the real world became just as stupid. As USPS funding was slashed last summer and newly appointed postmaster general Louis DeJoy undercut the institution’s effectiveness, The Postman was suddenly news again.
“In its day, a critical and box office disaster. But today? Chillingly accurate,” went the indicative Stephen Colbert sketch. “Looks like somebody owes Kevin Costner an apology.”
To Costner’s credit, The Postman — which he also produced and directed — does have every element of a film worthy of our times. Waterworld, too. Both are dystopian visions of an ecologically devastated planet run by racist, fascist regimes. It’s the perfect material for making sense of our era of obvious and increasing social disintegration. They even get the causes of collapse right.
Unfortunately, they’re also terrible. Worse, they’re terrible in a way that indicates exactly why they might yet come true.
Everything that could have made these films interesting is discarded in favor of trite hero worship and the unexamined longing for a bygone era. Which is to say, what sucks about Waterworld and The Postman is what sucks about Joe Biden. The obvious failures of ’90s blockbusters are the common sense of today’s political pundits.
An Everyman Myth
The fact that the protagonists are unnamed in each film is less because Costner plays an everyman and more because he plays a myth.
The titular postman begins as a Shakespeare-quoting itinerant actor before he stumbles on a long-abandoned USPS truck. Partially inspired by a Playboy in the mail bag — turns out “a man in uniform” is a turn-on — he invents a new identity to con a nearby town for food, accidentally launching a revolt and reviving the federal government in the process. The film ends with the unveiling of a statue of the postman on his rounds.
The Mariner, as Costner is credited in Waterworld, is also a loner. “He doesn’t have a baby, so death can’t find him,” an equally mythical little girl says to the villain at one point. “He doesn’t have a home or people to care for.” Instead, he ekes out a living by selling scavenged goods to the few settlements that remain, getting by on wits and engineering that awes more than one visitor on his tricked-out trimaran.
That, and the fact that he — alone among all the people in the world — can breathe water. You might wonder why he has gills, but I can’t tell you, because the movie never bothers to explain. All you need to know is that this guy is special.
That disinterest in the forces shaping the world — including how a single person could have evolved an entirely new human organ — runs deep. About halfway into the movie, the Mariner uses his special powers to take his new love interest down to the ocean floor, which is, of course, the ground we live on now. That’s played as a big reveal, even though they literally told you that’s what happened in the opening credits. An acknowledgment that there is a past stands in for even a cursory understanding of it.
It’s unfortunate, because the distance between the halcyon mid-’90s, when the movies were made, and the dystopian world they predict is the most interesting thing about them. By turning a blind eye to that distance, they drift into the worst failings of the action movie genre, turning their villains into uninteresting cartoons.
The Mariner faces off against “the Smokers,” who leave black clouds across the oceans with their diesel-fueled jet skis and hang a portrait of Exxon Valdez captain Joe Hazelwood in their factory-cum-fortress. Inevitably defeated in the film’s climax, their ship sinks, revealing that it was the renewed husk of the Exxon Valdez the whole time.
Meanwhile, the postman’s antagonists are the “Holnists,” named after an already-dead (skin cancer, oddly) cultish leader whose book Seizing the Way to Win inspires a militaristic movement devoted to power, rule of law, and loyalty to the collective. The current leader, a former salesman who fashions himself a general, is moved to tears by the puerile self-help bullshit.
It would be easy enough to mock if it weren’t for our current, real-life villains. Real estate huckster presidents, QAnon conspirators in Congress, right-wing militia members rolling coal in bloated trucks: the resemblance is clear. Except now, as in the Costner dystopias, a surface-level understanding of these phenomena is as apt to blind as it is to reveal. Why people are so invested in coal-burning, gun-toting, labor-forcing white supremacy is as important to understand as the mere fact that they are, indeed, invested. Yet today’s Democratic Party’s answer to such questions is as shallow as two failed blockbusters, because the answers might just complicate their simple hero narrative.
The Best We Can Do
Nowhere is that more clear than in the ordinary people depicted in the movies. Waterworld is populated by inbred hicks who want the Mariner’s “seed” or are easily conned by false promises from the Deacon, the Smokers’ leader, whose religious title belies another condescending worldview.
And when the postman is captured by the Holnists early in the film, the most his fellow workers can muster — until his inspiration changes things — is demanding to watch The Sound of Music instead of Universal Soldier on movie night. (That’s not an obscure reference. That’s an actual plot point.) The townspeople elsewhere are so busy assessing him, once again, for the quality of his semen that they easily fall for his own con. All they needed was a good strong man to come lead the way.
What that really means is that these dystopias act as a limit on our imagination: the best we can do is return to the good old days, when the right men were in charge. It’s the future, where you can stop paying attention to politics, because Donald Trump isn’t there to ruin the day. If kids are still in cages at the border with Trump gone, well . . .
The only credit regular people get in these two movies is for being family to the heroes. The mythical little girl who praises the Mariner for not having a child eventually becomes like an adopted daughter, proving to him that there’s something worth fighting for. And it’s the fact that the postman brings back human connection — through family letters and community news — that gives him such influence. It’s as if our problems will melt away if only we can speak to each other. Maybe that’s why the postman names his daughter “Hope.”
But we live in the post-Obama world. We know how much — and how little — hope is worth without collective action guided by a substantive political vision. And that’s exactly what the Costner dystopias refuse to consider. The Mariner opts to sink the Smoker ship, with all of their enslaved rowers below deck, rather than joining forces against their common enemy.
The Postman is even worse, because it is a story of collective action — except Costner doesn’t seem to realize it. Too busy idolizing the postman for giving everyone hope once again, it ignores the fact that the actual work — recruiting mail carriers, organizing routes, creating mail sorting processes, planning for self-defense against the Holnists — is all done by a young black man named Ford Lincoln Mercury (so named because he just wants to drive cars). All the while, the postman is recuperating in the woods with his love interest, contributing nothing.
In a better film, there would be a lesson in there about the role of leaders and tensions within political movements. Instead, in The Postman, we get a dick-swinging contest. In the end, the postman uses the fact that he’s, technically, a member of the fascist army to invoke one of their laws allowing him to settle things mano a mano.
“Great men were made by other great men,” the Holnist general says. “Patton had Rommel, Grant had Lee, I get stuck with you.” They roll around for a while until the postman wins and declares that there will be peace. The fascist army murmurs assent, and that’s that.
It’s not so different from thinking Joe Biden saying, “Will you just shut up, man?” is the key to defeating Trumpism. The Biden vision is a world in which politics don’t exist, just PR stunts among the right kind of men. To hear the centrists in the Democratic Party talk, the right speech from old Joe, and we’ll get a few carbon credits here, a little means-tested debt relief there, maybe a bit of tinkering with some health care subsidies, and voilà, “America Is Great Like It’s Always Been.”
A Failure of Imagination
No one should have to point out that such thinking is vapid and facile. Yet here we are. On the other hand, the almost impressive amount of wishful thinking it implies is impossible to ignore in these Costner movies. Their stupidity is visceral. The statue revealed at the end of The Postman idolizes a trumpets-blaring montage scene that is so incomprehensibly dumb it has to be experienced:
It’d be hilarious if it wasn’t so familiar. Bereft of ideas and purposefully ignorant of the history that brought us to disaster, our politicians just keep trotting out the same tropes and feigning surprise when things don’t get better. Their imagination is as bad as Waterworld, which ends with the Mariner and his friends finding a vast, untouched lush landscape where they can build anew — from dystopia to reviving the Christopher Columbus myth in only two hours.
In their minds, our only options are that fantasy or drinking your own urine. If we want a better story, we’ll have to write it ourselves.