Monday, April 13, 2009

The Omega Man

The Omega Man (1971)
Directed by Boris Sagal. Starring Charlton Heston. Rosalind Cash. Anthony Zerbe.

I Am Legend, Richard Matheson’s brilliant 1954 novel of a world in thrall to a vampiric plague, has not been well served by film makers over the years.

1964’s The Last Man on Earth (L'Ultimo uomo della Terra) – despite a wonderfully tortured central performance by Vincent Price and a screenplay that was fairly faithful to the original material – suffered from a miniscule budget, while the recent Will Smith vehicle suffered from the reverse problem, resulting in a too-many-cooks broth that was deeply unsatisfying.

And then there is The Omega Man, a curiously enjoyable slice of 70’s kitsch in which Charlton Heston’s last man on earth battles mutant albinos in an errie, deserted Los Angeles.

Part muscular actioneer, part SF Christ myth (complete with a martyred Heston in the last reel) The Omega Man pays no more than lip-service to Matheson’s novel, recasting his everyman protagonist, Robert Neville, as a soldier-scientist with impeccable cultural credentials and a strong messiah complex.

Gone, too, is Matheson’s carefully reasoned vampire plague, to be replaced by the black-robed Family, led by Anthony Zerbe’s Jim Jones/ Charles Manson influenced Matthias, and featuring some of the funkiest natural afros this side of the Jackson Five.

It’s a strange mixture of wish-fulfilment – the end of the world as Neville’s private playground – SF and blaxploitation that really shouldn’t work but somehow does.

In large part it’s down to Heston’s performance. His Colonel Robert Neville is self-assured, yet tortured, caring yet callous, intelligent yet brutish (an extension, in many ways of his character in Planet of the Apes). Yet as the film progresses Neville/ Heston becomes a changed man, prompted by the arrival of a group of young survivors headed by Rosalind Cash, so that in the end, when Neville sacrifices himself, it is to create a world of which he himself could never be part.

This, however, is not to suggest that The Omega Man is a particularly deep or introspective film – there are too many shots of Heston with his shirt off and an uneasy fetishism of weapons for that – but rather that the subtext of this rather florid and, at times, downright silly movie manages to raise it to a level slightly above its otherwise ‘kill the bad guys, save the world’ plot.

To be brutually honest, The Omega Man has not dated well and now looks like a strange, too-hip-to-be-cool snapshot of the early 1970’s: the hair, the clothes, the music all belong to a bygone age and Heston himself is monolithic – the last decent man in America making a stand against drugs, hippies and new ideas (even if Neville's favourite movie is 'Woodstock') – an old-fashioned movie star trying to move with the times. Yet equally it belongs to a time when mainstream Hollywood was prepared to mix things up a little, to present its audiences with heroes who were flawed rather than merely tragic and a time when bri-nylon tracksuits were the height of fashion.

Taken with Planet of the Apes and 1973's Soylent Green, The Omega Man forms part of a curious trilogy of intelligent, literary derived SF – although far removed from their source material - linked together by an aging Charlton Heston and a pessimistic worldview from a pre-Star Wars age when cinematic science fiction was less reliant upon spectacle and more upon plot and character. And generally better for it, too.

1 comment:

  1. My thinking is that The omega Man is really the poor cousin of both Soylent Green and Planet of The Apes. Something about it just does not ring true to me. It may bee the soundtrack, i cant really be sure.