The Postman may look like Waterworld on sand, but in its heart it really wants to be a Sound Of Music for the millennium. Probably the most glutinously sentimental, mega-budget post-apocalyptic Western that ever there was, it's about a man who brings hope to little children growing up in a ravaged society threatened by a fascist army.
Costner's Man With No Name might not teach the kids songs to cheer them up (although he does warble over the closing credits), but he fills and lifts their hearts with tales about the world out there, a world that's different from the bleak society they know.
It's not as if he's unaware of these parallels: he actually includes scenes from The Sound Of Music early on in the film to signal what he's aspiring to make. You see, the vicious warriors would rather watch a faded print of the tale of the singing nanny over and over again, rather than, say, Jean-Claude Van Damme's Universal Soldier. In their hearts, they're just hopelessly mushy sentimentalists - and this is what you'll need to be to survive this 170-minute-long film.
It's very easy to ridicule The Postman. The notion of the fearless mailman as saviour of the world sounds like the deluded fantasy of a socially backward postal worker (although Howard Hawks formulated one of his most existentialist tracts about manhood in Only Angels Have Wings, his 1939 film dedicated to flying postmen). But think about it - isn't the delivery of information actually a neat and perfectly workable metaphor for defying dictatorship and rebuilding society? Another thought-provoking idea that's nicely handled is the power of myth to overcome truth and create new truths. If only the lead didn't feel the need to gush "I believe in the US" every 20 minutes, or to rip off Mad Max.
Although Costner's The Postman (which, in determined Dances With Wolves style, he also produced and directed) proves a highly indulgent feat, Kev's role as the reluctant hero is amiable and down-to-earth enough - even modest in a way that Kenneth Branagh, for instance, will never be. And his version of Macbeth for children (before he becomes Postie, he travels around as a one-man-and-his-mule theatre) is quite charming.
But when General Bethlehem (Will Patton) starts quoting Shakespeare and painting self portraits, then we know the movie has sunk into the swamp of clichés. Just what is it about American sadists that they have to keep turning to old British literature for inspiration (see GI Jane)?
Visually, the movie is a satisfying spectacle, although neither the sets nor the costumes are as inspired as those designed for Waterworld, and there is an added love story for the sake of having an added love story. One thing can be said for the movie: whether you buy into the corn and appreciate Mr Costner for his earnestness, or find all the unrestrained sentimentality (in slow motion) difficult to swallow, it is never completely boring. You can go with the idea of a heroic postie implausibly rallying the downtrodden, or you can have fun making fun of its awfulness.