This week our cinematic history starts to criss-cross itself with a film that was made 20 years ago but set only 4 years ago in a world that echoes…well, you can take from it what you will…
A great deal of post-apocalyptic beauty was found in Central Oregon for this 90’s blockbuster which winds its way from Elvis to St. Rose, Oregon, and Phil Oppenheim argues that it is worth a 3 hour re-look – especially in the (lack) of light along the Path of Totality.
Celestial events — streaking comets passing close to earth, full moons, seasonal solstices — can make some people go a little nuts. And eclipses, like the event-of-the-century coming our way on Monday, have for centuries been accompanied by a particularly eschatological popular madness, with plenty of prophecies about the imminent End of the World. If you’ve had stray thoughts about potentially scary meanings behind the eclipse, I’d like to (1) assure you that everything will turn out OK, as long as you’ve got your protective glasses (if you choose to look at the sun), and (2) recommend a movie to keep you entertained til doomsday, Kevin Costner’s sci-fi dystopia The Postman.
Based on David Brin’s award-winning post-apocalyptic novel — the first third of it, anyway — The Postman might best be known as Costner’s other big-budget sci-fi flop, with the more famous Waterworld (released two years earlier) being his career’s biggest punchline (although the reality is that it made about 6 times more in its theatrical run than The Postman did). That’s a shame: while the film has its flaws and demands its viewers to stock up on lots of snacks and coffee for its duration (it’s almost three hours long), it has lots of earnest charm, occasional moments of humor, and a stirring (if corny) sense of patriotism and civic pride.
The 1997 film starts in “the future,” 2013 (ulp!), after a 3-year catastrophic winter (filled with environmental disaster, war, and an infertility-causing plague called “the bad mumps”). Our average Joe anti-hero drifts his way westward amid the ruins of the now un-United States, play-acting in bad Shakespeare recitals in exchange for meals at ragtag survivor enclaves along his meandering travels. He borrows a uniform from the skeleton of a long-dead letter carrier (burning a sack full of really, really dead letters for warmth), and cooks up a new scheme for self-preservation: by pretending to be a representative of the Restored United States of America, he can get some hot meals from townspeople longing to connect with long-lost family members (and willing to believe in his fictional tall tale). He soon learns that he also gives hope of the survival of American civilization to desperate survivors, too — which winds up stoking the ire of villain General Bethlehem, a neo-fascist hypermacho warlord who intends to keep everyone under his bootheels and his ethnically pure empire intact.
Unlike most Mad-Max clones, though, this film inspires hope and faith in mankind — so without saying much more, I’ll leave it to you to figure out how it all ends. Critics hated its earnestness, but you may find its lump-in-your throat sincerity refreshing and kind of charming. Author Brin himself likes the film, despite its box office debacle; he wrote that “watching Kevin Costner’s three hour epic is a bit like having a great big Golden Retriever jump on your lap and lick your face, while waving a flag tied to its tail.” Given 2017’s political environment, that sounds pretty good to me.
Another reason to check it out: it’s also a very Oregonian movie. Yes, much of it was filmed in neighboring states (with Washington in particular subbing for Oregon in several key scenes), but there’s a lot of Oregon in the finished project — including several towns and sites in prime viewing locations for the total eclipse (including Bend, Redmond, Rimrock Ranch, Crooked River/Ochoco National Forest, and Smith Rock State Park; the BendIsBetter blog has an excellent photo of Costner at Smith Rock here). Oregon is an integral part of the storyline too: our reluctant hero Postman treks across the state throughout the film, spreading hope along the way of his search for the rumored idyllic coastal community of “St. Rose, Oregon.” Oregon symbolizes both Western ideals of freedom and opportunity in the film, and also the Cascadian ethos of support the environment and human harmony with nature, which will remind sci-fi readers of Ernest Callenbach’s visionary utopian novel Ecotopia. It’s weirdly reassuring (at least to me) to imagine that, after all hell breaks loose, America can rebuild itself upon Oregon’s foundation.
If you’re just looking for a good time, you’ll want to know that The Postman isn’t just all heroism and lofty philosophy — what makes the movie tick is that it’s also goofy fun. Its heart is in its belief in performance as a balm for grim times; what it loves about American culture is the healing power of entertainment. Costner’s unnamed hero treats his Postman role as an acting gig (at least at first), as just another character with whom he’s entertaining fans. Later, the Postman and his nemesis, the evil general, both reveal themselves to be frustrated Shakespeareans, squaring off in an improvised battle of thespian skills (a kind of So You Think You Can Bard for the post-apocalyptic set).
The movie posits pop music as the connective tissue between the gloomy present and America’s good-ol’-days, and pop music is dotted throughout the movie. The Postman explains that (his invented) “President Richard Starkey” (h/t Beatles fans) has proclaimed that “Stuff’s Getting Better Every Day” for example; a town of survivors stages Ewok-style dance-parties to homespun versions of songs like Redbone’s 1973 classic “Come and Get Your Love”; Tom Petty makes a funny cameo as a mayor “who used to be famous”; Jono Manson and John Coiman’s “I Miss My Radio” (a sort of jam band version of The Ramones “Do You Remember Rock ’n’ Roll Radio?”) plays in the background, reminding viewers of how much of a bummer it is not to hear the radio during the End Times.
As a treat after pillaging towns, General Bethlehem’s troops get the rare treat of watching a movie; they boo the testosterone-fueled action flick Universal Soldier that’s been selected for them, and only start cheering when the projectionist fires up The Sound of Music instead (!). Hilariously, one of the survivor towns is named “Elvis, Oregon” (although I’d have preferred something more geographically appropriate like ElliotSmithville, Wiperstown, or Dead Moon Junction). By the time you’re listening to Kevin Costner himself singing with Amy Grant on the soundtrack (their version of the Lovin’ Spoonful’s pop nugget “You Didn’t Have to Be So Nice”), the film’s point is made: if the stuff ever really hits the fan, we’re really gonna miss our music. The Postman presents the fear of a future catastrophic popapocalypse, but offers the salvation of poptimism too — we’ll be in good shape, as long as we’ve got songs in our hearts (and a Kevin Costner and the Modern West LP on a hand-cranked turntable).
And for what it’s worth, If you’re still feel anxious about the doomsday that the eclipse might portend, perhaps you can find comfort in knowing that some Oregonians in the path of the solar eclipse thought that the “end of the world was at hand” 99 years ago, too.
Watch: The Postman, available on Warner Brothers DVD and on Amazon Video-on-Demand.
- Written by Phil Oppenheim