The Omega Man (1971)

*. When people think of Charlton Heston what probably first comes to mind is the Hollywood legend, the guy who was always the star, often in blockbusters. They see him as Ben-Hur, Moses, El Cid, or George Taylor, nobly representing humanity in The Planet of the Apes.
*. It’s surprising then to come to a film as late in Heston’s career as The Omega Man and see how cheap it looks, and indeed was. Yes, there are some impressive shots of a deserted Los Angeles, but apparently these were achieved by the simple expedient of shooting on weekends (and if you’re a real movie nerd who likes to get picky about such things you can still see people and cars in the background). Meanwhile, the rest of the movie looks like it was made for TV.
*. This probably shouldn’t be surprising since the director, Boris Sagal, worked primarily in television and the budget here wasn’t large. But I think the main reason I found it noteworthy is because of the outsized place this movie holds in my memory, and I think the memory of most people who grew up watching it on TV.

*. For us, The Omega Man was the original post-apocalyptic thriller. Yes, Richard Matheson’s source novel I Am Legend had been filmed before as The Last Man on Earth, but who had seen that? And Romero’s Night of the Living Dead had invented the modern zombie apocalypse just a few years earlier, but that had been a low-budget indie. So The Omega Man wasn’t the first such film, or the best, but it became something of a monument in the post-apocalyptic landscape. Which is why, seeing it again for the first time in more than twenty years, it struck me as such a diminished thing.
*. As for Heston, he seems as out of place as his safari jacket and military uniforms. Kirk Douglas had it written into his contract that he appear shirtless in at least one scene in Paths of Glory, and I can only imagine Chuck had some similar provision about going topless. Alas, he should have kept this shirt on. He was pushing 50 here, which is pushing 70 by today’s standards.
*. Two things set The Omega Man apart from the usual end-of-the-world film fare. In the first place there is the business of race. When Heston meets the Last Woman on Earth she turns out to be Rosalind Cash, which in turn leads to one of the first interracial kisses in a movie (Captain Kirk had kissed Uhura on television in 1968). But that’s just the icing on the cake for a movie that is full of odd racial angles being played. There’s also Zachary (Lincoln Kilpatrick) complaining that Neville’s house is a “honky paradise,” and immediately being told to forget “the old hatreds.” The society of the future is colour blind, after having literally whitewashed all the brothers and sisters with albinism. Meanwhile, the survivors are a hippie rainbow coalition. This stands out all the more because I can’t think of another post-apocalyptic film that introduces the subject of race much at all. In Night of the Living Dead Ben (Duane Jones) is black, but nothing is made of this because it seems to have been an accident of casting and is never adverted to in the script.

*. The second thing that strikes one’s attention is the role religion plays. The Family are a tribe of Luddites running an inquisition that suggests some kind of end-of-times theocracy. Again this is something you don’t find in many post-apocalyptic films, where the zombies usually don’t have any kind of religion or politics (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies being one recent exception). Heston’s turn as the crucified Christ at the end is just the fulfillment of this motif, foreshadowed by the earlier scene where the little boy asks him if he is God. Turns out he is!
*. The action is pedestrian and doesn’t get helped one bit by the score. Just listen to it from the point where Neville is about to kiss Lisa to when he gets the power back on. That’s a suspenseful stretch of the story but the scoring kills it. It’s hard to imagine something less appropriate, which makes me think it came from a can.

*. What strength the film still has is entirely owing to the strength of the basic idea. As so often in cases of the apocalypse, one envies the survivors, at least a bit. Humanity has had a good cull, leaving Neville tearing about L.A. in his choice of sports cars, cracking wise to himself, and hiding out at night in a mansion powered by an electric generator. Not perhaps the most obvious (or safest) place to hole up in the event of a zombie apocalypse, but it’s stylish in an early ’70s Playboy-pad kind of way. With Lisa by his side I can imagine Neville comfortably spending the rest of his days lounging about in a monogrammed housecoat, smoking a pipe and reading military histories in-between domestic chores.
*. I kind of wish I hadn’t watched it again. It’s a movie that looms large in my imagination, but it’s really not very good. Or put another way, it’s better remembered than experienced. The return to Matheson’s story for 2007’s I Am Legend should have been a slam dunk, but it was an even bigger failure. Meanwhile, Matheson’s book has held up quite well. I’m not sure how to explain that.

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