"One creature, caught. Caught in a place he cannot stir from, in the dark...alone, outnumbered hundreds to one, nothing to live for but his memories, nothing to live with but his gadgets, his cars, his guns, gimmicks..."
The end-of-the-world thriller is a common one in science fiction, and it's proven a popular one in film. The current obsession with zombies is just the latest phase of this fascination with this “what if” scenario. The post-apocalyptic genre offers immediate dramatic impact; the viewer can't help but get caught up in the game of “what would I do in such a drastic situation?”
As early as 1959's The World, the Flesh and the Devil and 1962's Panic in Year Zero, filmmakers have been inspired by the dramatic and visual possibilities inherent in the genre. We humans seem endlessly intrigued by the idea of the eventual decline of civilization and the decimation and eradication of our species from an indifferent planet.
There have been all manner of post-apocalyptic movies, some straight-up adventures (The Road Warrior), some philosophical character studies (The Quiet Earth), bleak horror (Dawn / Day of the Dead), poignant ruminations on the end of all things (The Road) or man's descent into animalistic savagery (No Blade of Grass). I like nearly all of these films, and love many. I'm guess I'm just predisposed to enjoy a good end-of-the-world yarn. The Omega Man may not be the best example of its genre, but it's certainly one of the most entertaining.
Charlton Heston stars as Robert Neville, military scientist and, seemingly, the last man on Earth. As a virulent plague begins wiping out humanity, Neville engineers a possible vaccine. Surviving a helicopter crash, but beginning to feel the effects of the plague, he injects himself with the last intact vial of serum. As a result, he becomes immune to the disease. As civilization crumbles around him, he holes up in his penthouse apartment and barricades himself in with the paintings, books, and other last remnants of a dying culture.
Not all humans immediately succumbed to the plague; some have changed, mutated into albinos who can't abide light. This slowly-dying new breed of humans has gathered into a hooded, black-robed group calling itself “the Family,” organized and led by former newscaster turned cult leader, Mathias (Anthony Zerbe, in a eerily calm, mesmerizing performance). Matthias and his “Family” despise and destroy all technology, anything that signifies the machines of the past that have led to their current plight. By proxy, Neville has become their hated nemesis, and by night, they lay siege to his “fortress.” By day, he hunts the litter- and corpse-strewn streets and buildings looking for the mutants' “nest,” determined to wipe them out for once and all.
The first (and by far the most powerful) half of the film establishes this world and Neville's lonely routine as he copes with not only the mental strain of his isolation, but the dangers imposed by the Family. The film has a truly effective opening that grips from the first frame, as we see Neville driving a convertible around the deserted streets of Los Angeles. Suddenly, Neville slams on the brakes, whips up a submachine gun and, spying a dark figure lurking within, sends a hail of bullets flying into the windows of a nearby building. Next, we see him take a corner too hard and mess up the suspension on his ride...so he casually walks up the road to a car dealership and grabs a new one, all the while keeping a running one-sided conversation with the rotting corpse of a salesman slumped behind his desk. “How much for a trade-in on my Ford? Oh, really? Thanks a lot, you cheating bastard...”
Despite the bravado, its plain that Neville still reels from the shock of being surrounded only by the dead or dying. He then enters a movie theater, fires up the projector and watches Woodstock, the way he mouths all the words by heart showing us he's done this many times before. Watching this ultimate expression of a communal experience on film is the closest he can come to feeling like he's back among people, a little taste of what things were once like in a world now long gone.
Coming out of the theater, he realizes he's waited too long: the sun is setting and soon, the Family will be out in full force. He speeds home and as darkness falls, barely makes it into his garage before his car is firebombed and he's attacked by several mutants. He dispatches his assailants but it's a close-run thing. A little shaken, he starts up the massive generator that powers his apartment building. As he does so, numerous floodlights on the outside of his building send the gathered Family members scurrying for the shadows. Secure in his bunker, Neville rides the elevator up to his floor and enters his sanctum, filled with all the technology and culture he can cram in. He changes into dinner attire, pours himself a glass of wine and continues his chess match with a bust of Caesar he keeps on his table. But his carefully designed routine and civilized armor is continuously punctured by the taunts and screams of the Family outside. “Nevillllle...Nevillllle...”
Neville's tenuous existence is rocked one day when, trying on clothes in an abandoned sporting goods store, he spots an attractive young black woman, Lisa (Rosalind Cash), who runs away before he can talk to her. Events lead to his meeting Lisa again, and he finds out she's living beyond the city limits with a group of uninfected (so far) children and one other adult, a former medical student named Dutch (Paul Koslo). When Neville expresses surprise that this group of survivors appears clean, Dutch explains: "You've only seen the tertiary cases, Matthias and his people. We're not as far gone, but we're on the road."
Lisa's younger brother Ritchie has started to “turn," and Lisa hopes Neville, with his resistance to the disease, can help. Soon, Neville has installed Lisa and Ritchie in his apartment and, through a series of transfusions, manages to heal the boy. Neville and Lisa soon become intimate, and the re-energized Neville starts packing up necessary equipment for a planned relocation to the relative peace of the mountains with Lisa, Dutch and the kids. But the idealistic and naïve Ritchie, who feels the cure should be shared with Matthias and his people, heads off on a fateful encounter with the Family, Neville in frantic pursuit...
The Omega Man was the second of three attempts to bring Richard Matheson's seminal novel I Am Legend to the screen. A miscast Vincent Price as Neville contended with vampiric mutants in perhaps the most faithful adaptation, the occasionally atmospheric but rather cheap Italian production, The Last Man on Earth (1964). Decades later, superstar Will Smith took his turn as Neville in I Am Legend (2007). The Smith film has a pretty terrific opening, but goes quickly down the tubes in its second half, and is severely damaged by its unrealistic, too-quick-moving CGI monsters. While none of the three versions really do justice to the novel, taken as pure cinematic entertainment, The Omega Man emerges as the superior film.
An aging but still very fit Charlton Heston is an ideal choice as the lone alpha-male holdout for the human race. I know a lot of folks have a hard time separating an actor's politics from his or her film persona. Many people can't see past Heston's late-life NRA leanings to watch and enjoy any of his films. I say it's their loss. Heston was one of those rare actors who are able to realistically embody larger-than-life characters on film, while bringing to these iconic parts a deeply-felt, flawed humanity. A man of immense gravitas on screen, Heston was by all accounts a man of principle and honor in his real life, as well. The Omega Man was the middle of a fascinating trifecta of bleak, dystopian sci-fi films which started with 1968's Planet of the Apes and ended with Soylent Green (1973). All films with clear liberal political themes, anchored by his square-jawed, powerhouse presence. This to me indicates a more complex set of personal politics than is often ascribed to Heston (though his critics might correctly note his proficient wielding of guns in each of these films). None of this really matters in the end; Heston is Grade A superstar material and handily carries nearly every scene in The Omega Man.
While it remains a pacy, suspenseful and endlessly watchable sci-fi adventure, The Omega Man has some definite flaws. While Zerbe is a great foil for Heston, I would have preferred the mutants be more frightening in design and execution. As it stands, they're basically just random people in white pancake make-up, sporting freaky contacts and bad skin blemishes. Why the producers went this route, I'm not sure. It was undoubtedly a cheaper option. It may also have seemed more fresh for them to go with plague victims as the chief baddies, after over a decade of Hammer vampire shenanigans. Not to say that an imaginatively-reworked concept of vampires wouldn't have been more successful in the long run. Matthias and company simply aren't scary enough, that's for sure, but I still find them interesting, anti-establishment villains in sociological contrast to Heston's old-fashioned authority figure.
Some will find the direct links to 1970s counterculture and other sociological issues of the time glaring and dated. I personally think they add an interesting element to the film; movies are products of their time, after all, and, in my opinion, should be judged in context.
Rosalind Cash is really the film's main liability; she's a striking physical presence, all lithe body, big Afro and Black Power attitude. But her line readings are stiff, her blaxploitation manner forced, and her “Hey, honky” dialogue frequently cringeworthy. I think a stronger caliber of actress, such as Vonetta McGee or Pam Grier, and less instantly-dated dialogue, would have greatly improved the second half of the film - not to mention sell the romance aspects more convincingly.
Thankfully, Anthony Zerbe is there to provide a potent counterweight to Heston. Matthias is mad, certainly, but his arguments against Neville and what he represents are well-spoken and not without some intrinsic logic. The Family see themselves as the "New People" (even if they are slowly dying out from the disease). Neville is hated and feared by them, for a whole host of reasons: because he's different; he is healthy while they are dying; he uses the machines of death from the past; he hunts them by day, killing all he comes across; he represents all that the Luddite Matthias despises. He is, bluntly, "The Man." The Family want to not just kill him, but to purge the Earth of this relic of authority, to start things anew, to wipe out any trace of the mechanized past. Zerbe's measured, calm and eloquent delivery of this philosophy adds a rich texture to what is basically a stirring action film.
Eric Laneuville as Ritchie.
Koslo is fine as the pragmatic Dutch, his leather jacket and motorcycle an obvious nod to his counterculture inclinations. Eric Laneuville as Ritchie is even stiffer than Cash, but maintains enough raw charm to develop a decent rapport with Heston. They have some cute exchanges - Ritchie: "You know something, Mister? You're hostile. You just don't belong." Neville: "Nice of you to let me hang around".
Boris Segal's direction is effective. Aside from a few technical missteps (some really bad doubles during a motorcycle stunt, for one), the film is sleek and polished. The pacing of the film works a treat; just when things start to slow down a bit, the suspense ratchets right back up. For all the clunker lines given Cash, most of the script, by John and Joyce Corrington, is intelligent and nicely constructed.
A good deal of the film's effectiveness is due to the wall-to-wall, catchy music by Ron Grainer, which really adds a lot of pathos and excitement to the film (the score is available on a highly-recommended CD release from Film Score Monthly). Grainer provided lots of memorable music for television during his career, including the definitive rendition of the Dr. Who theme and the title music to The Prisoner. The Omega Man is one of his few film scores, but it's a great one. (You can listen to a suite of his music for the film here)
WARNING -- SPOILERS AHEAD!
The ending of the film departs from the source material. In the book, the dying Neville realizes he is the "legend" of the title, the boogeyman of a new race that will succeed mankind on the Earth. The Omega Man ends on a similarly downbeat note, with a nearly-turned Lisa betraying Neville by letting Matthias and his followers into his apartment. As the Family destroy his home and his possessions, those symbols of the evil past, Neville grabs Lisa and flees, but he doesn't get far. Matthias escapes, unpunished, having thrown the fatal spear that kills Neville. Some may find the final shot, with its on-the-nose Christ-like imagery, obvious and ham-fisted. For me, it works as a poetic coda: Neville dies, but not without capturing some of his precious blood for Dutch to transform into serum, thus ensuring the continuation of the human race.
Despite some of its admittedly dated or silly trappings, The Omega Man still holds up. There are some real ideas at work here, and even if they are occasionally muddled or not fully worked through, they're enough to act as underpinnings to the surface action and thrills. The many scenes of an eerily deserted Los Angeles, the only occupants of the surrounding buildings, cars and cobwebbed rooms grotesque, moldering corpses, are images that have stuck with me ever since I first caught the movie on local TV in my early teens. I get the same kick out The Omega Man now that I did back then. I still find it a tremendously entertaining piece of work that surpasses whatever “cheese” aspect it may carry to deliver a big blast of fun, mixed with a dollop of 70s-era, thought-provoking seriousness.
DVD Note: The Omega Man is readily available on a very nice DVD and an even better looking Blu-Ray.
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