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Non-Review Review: The Omega Man

The Omega Man remains, perhaps, the most high-profile adaptation of Richard Matheson’s genre-busting vampire sci-fi survivalist novel, I Am Legend. Of course, the film has little resemblance to Matheson’s truly iconic piece of literature, save for the basic premise. Charleton Heston is Robert Neville, the last man alive in a world of monsters. While I Am Legend is a bold and thought-provoking exploration of the implications of that idea, The Omega Man seems to have no loftier goal than simply telling an entertaining apocalyptic yarn. There’s nothing wrong with that, but – much like Robert Neville himself – The Omega Man is haunted by the ghost of what could have been.

Goodbye to all of that...

Goodbye to all of that…

The boldest idea in I Am Legend is the ending. Despite the fact that the film has seen any number of big-screen adaptations, starring high profile leading men like Vincent Price, Charleton Heston and Will Smith, the ending remains unique to the book. It seems that no big budget film has the guts to follow the story’s harsh logic to its bitter conclusion – there must come a point where the last man himself becomes a freak or a monster facing a bold new society.

That’s a rather bleak idea, and one that almost welcomes human extinction, the notion that the world itself might slip from human grasp. You can understand why a blockbuster film might shy from such a premise. The Omega Man teases that idea at several points throughout its runtime, but only fleetingly. Remarking how many monsters Neville massacres on a nightly basis, Matthias pointedly remarks, “You’re the angel of death, Doctor, not us.” Neville’s lover’s brother, Richie points out how cynical Neville has become towards these monsters. “You’re hostile. You just don’t belong.” Neville laughs it off.

Taking in Woodstock...

Taking in Woodstock…

Those are some valid points, or they would be if the film didn’t immediately dismiss them. No sooner has Mathias played the “victim” card than he begins ranting and raving like a lunatic. “Then it came to me,” he tells Neville. “We were chosen. Chosen for just this work. To bury what was dead, to burn what was evil, to destroy what was dangerous.” Later on, he boasts, “We choose to cancel this civilised world that men like you have made.”

At one point, Richie shows up and offers to make Mathias “normal” again. The whole scene is charged with uncomfortable subtext – the notion of one group deciding to impose its version of normality on another. Given that Richie is black, and that Neville spends his time watching counter-culture films like Woodstock, you would assume that the film might be open to the idea. Instead, it flinches. The monsters are nothing more than monsters. Neville is right to want to cure them, and Richie pays with his life for the sin of trusting them.

Here comes the science!

Here comes the science!

It’s an undeveloped strand, and it’s fair to describe The Omega Man as something of a politically confused film. Neville lives in a world that evokes the fears of the Cold War – a biological plague unleashed following a nuclear conflict. He spends his time watching films like Woodstock, miming along to ideals of the hippy movement in the sixties – how great it would be to communicate with one another, to connect on a meaningful level. Neville’s existence in a post-apocalyptic wasteland is the worst hell imaginable by those standards.

The film tries to coast off the “black power” movement of the seventies, with Heston’s female co-star, Rosalind Cash, boasting an impressive Afro and sassy attitude. The mutants have organised themselves into a community calling themselves “the Family”, a cult-like body with slavish devotion to their leader. With his long hair, Anthony Zerbe’s Mathias can’t help but evoke the cult leader Charles Manson who convinced his followers to commit truly horrifying acts. In a way, The Omega Man feels like a conscious shift from the idealism of the sixties to the brutal cynicism of the seventies.

Alone with everybody...

Alone with everybody…

And yet, despite the fact that it is firmly rooted in counter-culture, there’s something strangely conservative about The Omega Man. Neville is a government scientist, and his world view is treated as inherently correct. When he stumbles across Lisa, Neville discovers a community of women and children who seem to need a strong patriarchal figure to guide them. “We had to lay low,” Lisa explains, as if they had just been waiting for a figure as strong an masculine as Charleton Heston to lead them to glory. Neville is a man who seeks a return to the status quo, to push things back to the way they were.

Indeed, The Omega Man is a wonderfully vivid experience. The plot and characters are barely there, but it has some great and memorable imagery. The movie pushes Neville as a Christ-like figure. “Are you God?” one child asks him. His blood apparently holds the cure for the mutants. At the climax, he urges Lisa, “Come back in the light!” When the mutants plan to burn him alive, he is tied in the iconic crucifixion pose. At one point, he even gets a spear in his side. It is a bit heavy-handed, but it seems like Boris Sagal didn’t know the meaning of the word “subtle.”

Pale rider...

Pale rider…

And that’s the charm of The Omega Man. It is not a subtle or nuanced film, but it is a well-constructed one. It’s a superb piece of B-movie cinema, crafted in such a way that it is hard to resist. There’s a lovely sequence early on as Neville cruises through an abandoned Los Angeles, only to hear the sound of a phone ringing. It’s an overblown and over-the-top moment, but it is visceral. The camera shoots for Dutch angles. Heston reels in agony. The sound is impossibly loud. It works because there’s no sense that Sagal is ever holding back.

The film’s aesthetic is decidedly seventies. It’s easy to place the movie, even today. It just embodies that era so perfectly, with all the stylish touches. There’s nothing quite as strange as the sight of Charleton Heston sitting down to dinner dressed like Austin Powers or Jon Pertwee, or riding to freedom on a motorbike with Lisa and her massive Afro. This seventies-ness is a redeeming feature of the film, as it seems like a wonderful snapshot of what the end of the world might have looked like in 1971.

They've really crossed him...

They’ve really crossed him…

The film is staged impressively. The finished product is a bit wounded by the success of high-definition media, but it still looks very well. The fact that we can see a camera reflected in a set of sunglasses, or spot a pedestrian or car in the background of the abandoned Los Angeles doesn’t take away from the fact that The Omega Man is a fantastic accomplishment. That opening scene, before the studio logos even appear, is still as powerful as it ever was, as Charleton Heston cruises around an empty world.

Heston himself is fantastic, and it’s easy to see how the actor became a staple of these sorts of films. After all, if anybody could survive the end of the world, it is probably Charleton Heston. Heston isn’t an amazing dramatic actor, but he has a raw gravitas. It is very tough to carry a film on your own. Even with Anthony Zerbe present from early on, Heston still does the bulk of the heavy lifting. Heston is precisely the screen presence a story like this needs. He’s a rock that anchors it.

Family fortunes...

Family fortunes…

The Omega Man is a fairly weak adaptation. After all, I Am Legend is a science-fiction masterpiece. The Omega Man is not. It’s a superbly-crafted B-movie, a wonderfully fun and pulpy post-apocalyptic adventure that seems to be soaked in the seventies. It’s not a science-fiction classic, but it’s a very fun (if not exceptionally deep) piece of cinema.

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