The Omega Man Remains Relevant Science Fiction
by Kristin Battestella
After 1964's The Last Man on Earth but before 2007's I am Legend, there was The Omega Man, a loose 1971 adaptation of the Richard Matheson novel that remains a fine science fiction parable for today's audience.
Former military scientist Colonel Robert Neville (Charlton Heston) is immune to the plague that has ravaged the world after biological warfare between The Soviet Union and China has made him the last man on earth. He's spent the last two years alone by day – shopping where he may and driving the empty Los Angeles streets – while at night Neville avoids the mutated brethren cult led by former newscaster Matthias (Anthony Zerbe). Matthias sees Neville as the last remnant of the old technological ways that caused their suffering, but when Neville discovers Lisa (Rosalind Cash) and her small group of young survivors resisting the mutative turn, he's determined to use his immunity to develop a cure.
Directed by Boris Sagal (Rich Man, Poor Man) and adapted by John William and Joyce Hooper Corrington (Boxcar Bertha), The Omega Man opens with silent, distant shots of tall buildings and one small car on a quiet drive. No hustle, no bustle, no need to worry about traffic lights or speed limits on these open streets! Gunfire breaks this solitude as our eponymous man shoots at any sudden movement without hesitation, reminding viewers this isn't a pleasant empty but catastrophic fallout and germ warfare for a more jaded generation. The Woodstock footage in the empty cinema is a shrewd way to add more music and dialogue to The Omega Man, and the happy hippies and split screen designs create a sad commentary as the lonely Neville quotes the bittersweet lines before racing home to his foolproof penthouse and its “No Admittance” sign. Such humorous moments anchor the audience amid the well paced bleakness, and intercut overlays of past news bulletins, retro clips, missile footage, and Cold War updates sell the disaster. The specifics on how the then future 1977 got this way aren't completely spelled out, nor are they necessarily that important, for montages of overrun hospitals and bodies left in front of the television as they succumbed are enough. The apocalypse happens quickly though, it's been only two years and now there's one man on foot and no one to hear his echoes – or is there? The Omega Man has some lurking in the shadows surprises, and it's a great moment when our last man discovers he isn't as alone as he thought. While the style and casting admittedly capitalizes on the budding Blaxplotation movement, the interracial romance remains impressive, for the last people on earth wouldn't be so hung up on race anyway. Of course, The Omega Man is also silly at times with white men still screwing everything up, iffy Anglo Saxon versus Harlem jokes, and Jive talk laid on a little too thick. Cults and religious fanaticism sweep into the vacuum civilization left behind, and the confrontations are great when they do happen alongside well balanced action, dangerous rescues, and chases. Potentially resistant child survivors come out of the woodwork with innocent questions on The Family coming to steal their souls at night and if Neville's cure makes him God. At times both sides each represent death and savior with arguments over the new brethren's extremism and zealousness versus proper organization, cures, and scientific answers – although it was technology run amok that caused the problem in the first place! There's still a chance for science to save the day, man fixing what he put wrong with plans for a rural restart and hopeful Eden possibilities. However, this cataclysm may be too far gone to turn back, and some just won't let it. Despite a slightly abrupt and perhaps on the nose finale, The Omega Man offers multi layered interpretations for then and now amid heaps of Messianic symbolism – a man from the lit above brought mortally low with lances, pierced sides, crucifixion, blood, and a setting out to do what must be done legendary remembrance with a title to match.
Charlton Heston aka Moses is a little older in The Omega Man but remains gritty. After all, if anybody would survive an apocalypse, we kind of know it would be good old Chuck and his guns. He's shirtless too, as if there was any doubt he would be. Neville has a sense of humor about his situation and has delightful one liners or bitter quips as he talks to his reflection – “There's never a good cop around when you need one!” However, he's also a little zany by this point, hearings phantom noises and yelling at them to shut up and leave him alone. He plays chess with a Caesar statue, drinks, makes a car deal to himself, says excuse me to nobody, and dresses for Sunday dinner in a swinging green velvet jacket and ruffled collar when not in then hip leisure suit safari styles or mod military athleisure. The former scientist and retired colonel jogs with a rifle and notes safe areas on his map with a tape recorder – he's outnumbered and holding out but mentally slipping. Is he imagining it when he sees a girl? He claims he's a narcissist by default and Neville's reputation proceeds him, but the idea that his self injected experimental vaccine could be a cure within his blood makes him reconsider the staunch defense of his lonely home. Not to mention Neville puts on the gentlemanly charm as the only boy in town despite generator scares and a few close calls. He goes from saying the only thing people should build is coffins, as that's all we'll ever really need, to risking the cure from his body to save others. Should Neville exhaust his healing supply on the brethren whom he perceives as more vermin than human and half dead already? If he won't save them, does he kill them or leave them to die? Neville himself was once half crazed and entombed in his own fortress, so is his hope of leaving The Family behind to be with new people elsewhere too good to be true?
In The Omega Man's flashbacks, Anthony Zerbe's (License to Kill) brethren leader Matthias was a news anchor, a familiar face and voice to and for the public informing citizens of the Soviet versus China nuclear war. It's an eerie, though not surprising leap – especially today – that a television celebrity could rise as the leader of this plague cult called The Family, uniting victims with warped religion and distorted views on the error of our ways. Matthias waxes on the ills of technology and views Neville as a relic of destruction that must be purged. He uses this plague as an opportunity to cleanse and set fire, becoming obsessed with getting rid of the refuse of the past – obsolete oil, engines, and artificial light. From his ironic perch in the abandoned civic center, Matthias is ready to erase history and begin civilization anew. While his methods are extreme and twisted, we viewers unfortunately know he is scarily not wrong in how we are the cause of our own destruction with germ warfare and biochemical weapons. Maybe some of our technology is better off burned – but lynch mobs, torches, and Inquisition revivals are not the answer, leaving Matthias' destructive ways no better than the leaders who came before this apocalyptic plague.
Rosalind Cash's (Tales from the Hood) badass Lisa, however, has survived the apocalypse without talking to herself like Neville or power tripping like Matthias. She has some sweet red leather suits and remains prepared with guns and a motorcycle. Lisa warns Neville she'll bust his ass if he tries anything, and we believe it faster than he can say, “Yes ma'am.” She doesn't care about the world and has kept to herself just fine, only seeking out Neville for his scientific expertise once her brother has begun to turn from the plaque. However, Lisa does make herself at home in Neville's place, giving life to his museum with her panache and using her hustle to steal a red dress from its late owner and make a move on Neville as well. All this bleakness and morose on the run, yet when you put a man and woman together, they still know how to flirt! Her third perspective between Neville's cling to what was lost and Matthais' Dark Ages revival opposites add fine conversation on how a new existence need not be mere survival or retribution, there's a fresh world out there for the taking to make what they choose. While there is a whiff of black woman fetishism in her nude scenes, Lisa's on top and the next morning nakedness makes no mistake on what has happened. Neville and Lisa have a bittersweet laugh when they find birth control pills in the pharmacy, too – an irrelevant need to them post-apocalypse but a then recent liberation in 1971. Lisa jokes she's going out shopping and will be borrowing Neville's credit cards, but takes a gun as he reminds her his only rule is to shoot first – progressive banter for their situation that remains refreshing. Blaxplotation trappings of the time aside, it's exceptional to see a black woman take charge, kick ass, and look divine doing so. Why do we still not have enough characters like this? By contrast, Eric Laneuville (St. Elsewhere) as Lisa's young and innocent brother Richie naively thinks the potential cure developed by Neville will be for everyone – the youthful more slowly infected as well as the turned brethren. He foolishly thinks everything can simply go back to the way it was and make the world all right, but who could blame him? Unfortunately, this is exactly why we can't have nice things, for even after such a catastrophic fallout, there will always be someone to take advantage of a child's hopes.
While not as bad as some of my earlier, laughable Hokey Heston favorites, The Omega Man has its share of dated seventies designs. The albino make up, sunglasses, and Afro hairstyles are bemusingly memorable – creepy thanks to the hooded robes, red lesions and white out eyes but odd rather than truly scary as intended. The rad music swells before the fine action scenes, but there are swanky melancholy tunes on the radio and warped organ music heralding the dead afoot. Not to mention the eight tracks! The Omega Man isn't a quiet film but common alarms or phones ringing are surprising noises breaking the isolation. Neville abandons a cool red convertible, stopping in the used dealership to help himself to a blue one before using a giant remote for that spiffy garage door opener. His townhouse is tricked out with elevators, spotlights, generators, old laboratory equipment, and a gunnery on the roof – a nighttime fortress holding out against fire bombs and primitive catapults. The penthouse is a mix of mod and baroque with candelabras, marble busts, paintings, and other pleasantries now mere relics of a civilization's lost sophistication. The luxurious hotels sit derelict with red velvet and waiting place settings overtaken with cobwebs, corpses, and ghoulish reveals. This is a bright and colorful film – the Ω lettering in the title is neat, too – yet the gritty, dark mood increases with eerie mannequins in empty department stores free for the shopping. Though the park scenes and winding motorcycle rides are lovely, the benches are rusted and the outdoors overgrown as nature reclaims itself without people. Such visuals look especially renewed on blu-ray along with a retrospective introduction and vintage behind the scenes featurettes.
Some purists may dislike the changes from the novel or find The Omega Man's seventies updates too of their time. However, believable characters anchor the audience alongside social statements that sadly still ring true, providing religious undercurrents and continued contemplation as good science fiction should do. The Omega Man remains a fun action thriller as well as a cerebral and mature fable. This is a superb story able to stand on its own as a separate entity from its source that keeps the conversation going long after the movie is finished.