When Neville has all of Malibu, Bel-Air, and Beverly Hills to choose from, Chief Justice Michael Stailey wonders why our hero chooses to live in downtown Los Angeles where even today nobody wants to be.
"The definition of a scientist: A man who understands nothing, until there is nothing left to understand."—Matthias
While my esteemed colleagues have covered most of the details in their respective reviews of The Omega Man, I'll take a more visceral approach to this cult classic.
Looking back on the box office of 1971, there was a theme of discontent bubbling to the surface. As art often imitates life, the American culture had come down from its "Summer of Love" high and the withdrawal was not pleasant. Mired in Vietnam, with economic inflation on the rise, and reports of the Kent State shooting and the Manson Family murders still fresh in people's minds, there was a great deal concern throughout the country. And when creative folks are frustrated with the present, they often look to the future with optimism or abject pessimism.
Two of the biggest films released that year were Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange and The Andromeda Strain, Robert Wise's big screen adaptation of Michael Crichton's novel. Both painted bleak worlds where man's overzealous ambition intentionally or unintentionally led to horrifying results. Two other films of note were Billy Friedkin's The French Connection and Clint Eastwood's franchise launching Dirty Harry where gritty, street realism met the underbelly of modern society. All of these elements combine to paint a fascinating backdrop for director Boris Sagal, and screenwriters Joyce and John William Corrington's re-envisioning of Richard Matheson's bestseller I Am Legend.
When China and the Soviet Union blow each other to kingdom come via biochemical nuclear weapons, the fallout reaches the United States in the form of a devastating plague. News reports chronicle citizens dropping like flies. Regardless of whether they were shopping, pumping gas, watching television, or simply crossing the street, no one is immune. Meanwhile, holed up in what looks to be Major Anthony Nelson's office from I Dream of Jeannie, Colonel Neville is hard at work developing a potential vaccine. Called away to an important meeting, he grabs his research and hops into an awaiting helicopter. Unfortunately, in mid flight, the pilot contracts the plague and the copter crashes into the foothills of the mountains. Broken, bleeding, and fearing the plague might claim him next, Neville claws his way over to his last remaining vaccine sample and injects himself, thus becoming The Omega Man…or so he thinks.
Let's not pull punches. The Omega Man is a guilty pleasure cheesefest, regarded more for its camp than its somewhat heavy handed message. Charlton Heston plays Colonel Robert Neville with the same macho bravado he brought to every role. He was the archetypal hero of the period; a streamlined, thinking man's Schwarzengger playing an Americanized version of Sean Connery's James Bond. Suave, quick witted, astoundingly resourceful, and unflinching when faced with a fight. In fact, there's a scene where one of the young survivors asks Neville "Are you God?" and all you want Heston to say is "No, but I do know him well. I'm Moses."
Unlike I Am Legend which is set in New York, the Corringtons set their tale in Los Angeles and yet surprisingly never leverage the Hollywood mystique. Instead, Sagal uses the cavernous downtown landscape, Dodger stadium, and the Warner Bros. backlot to frame the action. The antagonists in this tale are a cohesive unit of fallout survivors—"The Family"—under the zealous guidance of former news anchor turned anarchist Jonathan Matthias, played with gleeful reverence by Anthony Zerbe. These albino inspired, open sore plagued mutants stay loosely based on Matheson's vampires—sleeping by day, scavenging by night—but seemingly lack overall purpose. While Neville systematically traverses and documents the city, block by agonizing block to locate his nemesis, collect necessary supplies, and "shooting at anything that moves," The Family seems to mirror today's Los Angeles homeless population, keeping relatively too themselves until confronted by someone or something who threatens their existence. Case in point, Robert Neville. This last remaining vestige of the old ways, relying on electricity and modern conveniences to survive, he is a blight, an apnea to Matthias' dream of returning humanity to its base evolutionary roots and thus must be eliminated.
Why Neville chose to setup home for himself in the city, as opposed to the beach, Beverly Hills, or the mountain resorts of Lake Arrowhead or Big Bear is a head-scratcher. In fact, had he chosen one of the Hollywood studios in Culver City or Burbank, he would have had far more tools at his disposal to fend off The Family's attacks. The stage and set lighting alone would have kept them at bay for years. But this attack and parry between Neville and Matthias is little more than the film's background chess match; that is, until our hero comes face to face with Lisa (Rosalind Cash, Klute), the leader of another band of non-mutant survivors. Her younger brother is succumbing to the plague and Neville may be his last hope.
Here's where the film gets interesting. Having Heston play opposite a strong, black, female love interest—a relationship that would be recreated two years later by Roger Moore and Gloria Hendry in Guy Hamilton's Live and Let Die—was groundbreaking for its time. Sure the action sequences between Heston and The Family are fun, but the guts of The Omega Man resides within the touching rise and fall of Neville and Lisa. It's a Shakesperean tragedy that evokes images of Romeo and Juliet—a seemingly endless conflict, given a glimmer of hope by the discovery of each other (she once being a member of The Family) and the possibility of creating a life together far from the world in which they live, only to fall victim to that which they were trying so desperately to circumvent.
Okay, that may be taking this analysis a bit far. After all, this is a film with some of the cheesiest footage since Adam West donned the big screen cape and cowl for Batman: The Movie. However, there is something endearing about The Omega Man that keeps us coming back for more. Whether it be Rob Garnier's hypnotic, jazz infused score, Anthony Zerbe and Lincoln Kirkpatrick's hipster religious banter, a bevy of corpses found in various states of being, or Heston's vocalized internal monologues, it's the perfect representation of 1970s American life frozen in digitally enhanced celluloid. A time when pre-owned vehicles were called "used cars," phones had rotary dials, male actors had hair on their chests, didn't spend six hours a day in the gym, you could easily spot the stunt doubles, and special effects blood looked like bright red paint.
Presented in 2.40:1, 1080p native widescreen, this transfer to Blu-ray is exceptional. No dirt, no scratches, no faded colors, and no film grain. This is a window to past through crystal clear glass. The Dolby 1.0 mono audio track is nothing to get excited about. It all takes place upfront and lacks a robustness that would have added considerable depth to an otherwise entertaining presentation.
The bonus materials as exactly the same ones you'll find on both the standard definition and HD DVD releases. What Warner Home Video calls an "Introduction" by survivor co-stars Eric Laneuville (Richie) and Paul Koslo (Dutch), along with screenwriter Joyce Corrington is an odd piece of new content. It doesn't actually introduce anything, as the film begins the minute you place the disc in your player. Nor does is go into any real depth behind the production. It's more or less a collection of remembrances and not from the people you would have most like to hear tell. Sagal died in 1981, Heston has been in seclusion since Bowling for Columbine, Rosalind Cash passed away in 1995, and Zerbe has much better things to do with his time. "The Last Man Alive" is an interesting promo piece shot during production and features Heston and noted anthropologist Ashley Montagu discussing the psychological ramifications of being the last man on earth, in a strangely, seemingly scripted exchange. And it's all topped off with the original theatrical trailer.
The Omega Man is a fascinating installment in Matheson adaptations, sandwiched nicely between Vincent Price's The Last Man on Earth and Will Smith's I am Legend. While not brilliant filmmaking by any means, it does effectively captures Heston doing what he did best, cheese and all. Not a bad way to spend an hour and a half.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Introduction by actors Eric Laneuville, Paul Koslo, and screenwriter Joyce Corrington
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