Judge Brendan Babish can't help wondering: If Charlton Heston's the last man on earth, who's doing his hair?
The last man alive…is not alone!
Capitalizing on the new Will Smith hit I Am Legend (The Omega Man was adapted from the same source material, Richard Matheson's novel I Am Legend), Warner Bros. is releasing this semi-campy classic from the early 1970s on HD DVD.
Facts of the Case
The Omega Man is the story of Dr. Robert Neville (Charlton Heston, Planet of the Apes), the last man standing after germ warfare wipes out a majority of the world's population and turns a small minority into violent, badly scarred albinos. These individuals, known collectively as the Family, dress like druids, wear sunglasses, and speak like hepcats, but are decidedly uncool. They are violent Luddites, disdainful of technology and harboring an obsessive bloodlust for Neville.
For his part, Neville seems to enjoy killing members of the Family with his impressive collection of automatic weapons. However, when he discovers there are other, healthy humans living on the outskirts of the city, the good doctor not only has his hopes for the future renewed, but quickly falls for the lovely Lisa (Rosalind Cash, Tales From the Hood). However, the Family is hardly about to let Neville exist in peace, and plan for a bloody final showdown.
They don't make them like this anymore, as Robert Neville commented himself while watching the concert film Woodstock early on in The Omega Man. Indeed, action stars are no longer as affected or doughy as Heston (who probably put on a fair amount of weight from all the scenery he consumed). Nor do protagonists wear leisure suits unironically. And I don't think you'll find Michael Bay using a pair of bongos on the soundtrack to increase the tension. While I guess these are all good things, somehow its datedness is the greatest strength of The Omega Man.
While a modern film probably couldn't employ such campy production values without seeming amateurish and tedious, there is an earnestness here that elevates the material beyond kitsch. Of course, Heston is a big reason for the film's success, but the supporting cast follows his lead superbly, with performances that are sincere, but never overly serious. Cash effectively plays a brash young women (Lisa seems inspired by the militant black movements of that time period), yet she employs enough levity so that the film does not seem disjointed when she chooses to bed down with Neville while her young brother turns into an albino zombie type in the next room. Like that performance, The Omega Man doesn't take itself too seriously, but takes it itself seriously enough that the drama is affecting and the action does excite.
Still, as unsubtle as the film is, it still evinces an intellect a cut above your average apocalyptic thriller (the film's writers, the husband-and-wife team of John William and Joyce Hooper Corrington, both earned PhDs—his in literature, hers in chemistry). Instead of Neville fighting mindless, brain-chewing zombies, several members of the Family are eloquent. And instead of being merely evil, they express a cogent, if narrow-minded, worldview that decries Neville's death necessary for a prosperous future.
The Omega Man also shows a temerity not often seen in big-budget films: though Heston was one of the biggest movie stars on the planet in 1971, his romantic interest is not only African-American, but a strong, almost mouthy, woman. Seeing as how contemporary mainstream movies still seem hesitant to depict interracial relationships, The Omega Man has to be admired for a decision that surely antagonized a fair amount of its audience at the time of its release. (It is worth noting that Charlton Heston was an early and vocal supporter of civil rights.)
The Omega Man may embody many of the action film clichés of its time (several of which have sadly spilled over into our own), but it still manages to be unique and innovative enough to be sincerely entertaining. It might underwhelm those who think Transformers was the best movie of 2007 (don't snicker, that was one of the three finalists for the People's Choice Awards Favorite Movie of the Year), but as someone who is rarely impressed by special effects, The Omega Man proved to be a refreshing and thoroughly enjoyable throwback to a time period I didn't even live through. Go figure.
The HD DVD's 1080p/VC-1 encode has produced a picture that is startlingly crisp and clear for a movie that is over 35 years old. Since I'm used to seeing grain on film stock from this period, it's almost shocking to see Heston stroll through Los Angeles in a wide-collar pink shirt and leisure suit with such clarity. This nearly pristine picture especially emphasizes several beautiful panoramic shots of a seemingly abandoned metropolis.
The sound on the HD DVD is not quite as impressive. It's only a mono soundtrack, and so everything just comes as you from the center channel. This is especially unfortunate, because composer Ron Grainer uses an eclectic array of instruments on the soundtrack (did I mention the bongos?) and it would be interesting to hear how this would sound if multiple channels were employed.
The extras on the disc are identical to those on the 2003 DVD release (and are pretty marginal to boot). There is a four-minute introduction to the film, for which producers interviewed two supporting cast members and one of the film's screenwriters. (One can't help but wonder why more footage from these interviews wasn't used.) There is also an amusing ten-minute featurette from the film's release, highlighted by Heston pontificating on the deeper meaning behind The Omega Man. Lastly there is the trailer for the film, which is overlong and unwieldy, which seems to have been the style at the time.
This film did not advance the genre, nor does it provide any great drama or scares. However, it is endearingly earnest and highly entertaining, which is enough for me to recommend it wholeheartedly.
Not guilty. Now get your hands off me, you damn dirty albino monks!
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Introduction by Co-stars Eric Laneuville and Paul Koslo and Screenwriter Joyce H. Corrington
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