Welcome to the future. Biological war has decimated life on Earth. Los Angeles is a windswept ghost town where Robert Neville tools his convertible through sunlit streets foraging for supplies. And makes damn sure he gets undercover before sundown, when other “inhabitants” emerge.
The Omega Man adapts Richard Matheson’s novel I Am Legend into a high-impact, high-tension saga of a fate not far removed from reality. Charlton Heston is Neville, fending off attacks by The Family, sinister neopeople spawned by the plague. He also becomes a man with a mission after meeting Lisa (Rosalind Cash), another uninfected survivor – and guardian of some healthy children representing our species’ hope.
The Omega Man 5.75
eyelights: Neville’s house.
eyesores: Charlton Heston’s performance. Charlton Heston’s creepy teeth. the weak script. the hackneyed direction. the cheap production.
“He is part of the dead. He has no place here. He has the stink of oil, electrical circuitry about him. He is obsolete.”
‘The Omega Man’ is a 1971 motion picture based on Richard Matheson’s novel “I Am Legend’. Unlike ‘The Last Man On Earth‘, it takes so many liberties with the source material that even the author says that it’s different to the point that he can’t object to it – while he did have issues with its predecessor.
The action for this one is transplanted to Los Angeles in 1977, three years after the effects of biological warfare between China and the USSR have devastated the world: there are very few humans left alive and most of the ones that remain have mutated into violent, light-sensitive albinos.
Enter the titular “omega man”.
Incarnated by Charlton Heston, Dr. Neville is the last sane man in L.A. Alone, he drives around the city by day, gathering supplies and killing time, and holes up in his large home at night to fight off a group of mutants dubbed “The Family”. They want to eradicate what’s left of civilization.
‘The Omega Man’ is a story of survival: Neville is a scientist who had tried to find a cure for the plague that befell humankind, but now has to fend for himself, trying to survive not only the plague but the crazed remains of science’s failure. With civilization crumbling down it’s not an easy task.
It will only get more complicated when he discovers he’s not alone.
I’ve always found ‘The Omega Man’ an unfortunate movie. Its core concept is a superb one, but it’s done on the cheap and it features b-movie quality performances from just about everyone involved – including Charlton Heston, who was never exactly a naturalistic performer even in his best moments.
I am, and never have been, fond of Heston’s on-screen presence: his acting ability is reminiscent of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s, except that he doesn’t have the wit or charisma to make-up for it. Plus he’s got that gawdawful chimpanzee-esque grin, with those nubby teeth that look like bad dentures. Ick.
His character isn’t any more endearing, actually. Neville is a bit of a douche. Perhaps it’s a question of circumstance, but kicking doors down, taking things off the shelf and just dumping or tossing it make him careless; the kind of guy who doesn’t flush, the kind who dumps toxic waste in rivers.
He does whatever is convenient for him in the moment and has no long-term vision.
Some might say that this would be normal of someone in a situation such as this one, where one struggles for survival daily. Except that he chose to stay alive, it is no accident nor mere circumstance. And he chose to stay in L.A., instead of heading for the hills, where it would be safer. He is no victim.
But we never get to understand the man. Even though we are left alone with him for lengths of time, at no point do we get any real insight into what makes him tick. Why is he staying put, other than because he’s obstinate? Why is he choosing life, but not trying to find a cure for the plague?
Is living just enough? It doesn’t look like it, but we don’t really know, do we?
Part of the problem is the script, which doesn’t seem to know how to handle a character who is alone in the world; Neville is given all sorts of grating one-liners, quipping to no one at all. At least Vincent Price was given an inner monologue to share with the audience. Neville is impenetrable.
So we watch him driving around a deserted Los Angeles. Watch him get a flat, leave his car there to go find another, after which he goes to the movies to watch ‘Woodstock‘ (another WB movie, it should be noted). “Three straight years”, he mutters to himself. “They don’t make movies like that anymore.”
He talks to himself a lot, seemingly losing his mind (as evidenced by him hearing phones ringing and convincing himself that he’s not hearing them). That impression was set right in the beginning, as he drove around: suddenly, he stopped and started shooting at a shadowy figure in a window.
This made him seem erratic, unstable. This wasn’t helped by his reaction to the sunset: he freaked out, jumped in his car and drove around recklessly (the worst driver ever, he managed to drive poorly even on empty streets!) back to his place where he’s promptly ambushed by cloaked figures.
‘The Omega Man’ needed action, after all.
Soon his rambling fills in the gaps and we understand that The Family comes out at night, and that they’re out to get him. His environment is extremely dangerous, hence the fortifications and the weaponry. But this leaves us to wonder how he could possibly forget the time of day, knowing all this.
For all its issues, the script does have some interesting aspects to it. There’s the topical germ warfare issue which came to the fore at the time and which is ever more so a concern now. Then there is the religious side of the picture, with The Family being a cult of zealots who despise science.
And that couldn’t be more topical these days.
Then there is the Christ figure at the end, posed as Jesus was on the cross, but lingering in a pool of water – hanging onto a fountain with a spear wound to the chest. Clearly some parallels were being made, but what exactly were the filmmakers trying to say? We don’t and may never know.
The direction doesn’t help. Boris Sagal was mostly a TV director and it shows in the way he put ‘The Omega Man’ together: the action is limp, the tension never really builds, the editing is awkward. The best one could say is that he was able to make Los Angeles look deserted. Barely.
The production is another huge issue. Perhaps the limited budget is the reason why the director and actors are of lower calibre, but even basic things such as costumes look cheap: seriously, could The Family look any crappier, with their caked on pallor, horrible wigs and plastic eyes?
Wait til you see the stuntman who doesn’t look anything like Heston!
‘The Omega Man’ tries to build up to a climax, but it doesn’t work one bit: the third act feels utterly false, with characters running out into the dark of night or coming back late with no hint of logic. It’s all contrived to have a showdown with The Family, but it’s in no way convincing.
In fact, it leads to the biggest problem with the picture: How can The Family be smart enough to strategize and to have laid siege to Neville’s home every night for two years, but fail every time? Just set fire to the house, and the neighbouring buildings, for goodness’ sake! Then wait for him to be smoked out.
Finally, they do get their hand on him – but their solution is two years too late. And yet it was so simple.
Honestly, ‘The Omega Man’ starts with a great idea, spins it in an interesting fashion, but goes nowhere with it. Everyone is to blame for this: there isn’t a hint of smarts or skill anywhere to be seen for any of its 90 minutes. It leads one to want to watch its flawed but superior predecessor instead.
Or the Will Smith’ actioner, ‘I Am Legend’. Anything but this dud.
Date of viewing: Jan 12, 2015