Thursday, July 1, 2010

THE OMEGA MAN (1971)

Speak of the devil! Just the other day I mentioned that it's been decades since I last saw the second movie adaptation of Richard Matheson's I Am Legend, and just yesterday while channel surfing I discovered that my local cable service had given me a new "free" on-demand movie channel. This one is shared by the Fox Movie Channel and a service called Vutopia, and the latter has quite a bit of interesting stuff, including Boris Sagal's Seventies spin on Matheson's "last man on earth" theme.

The Omega Man deviates the most out of the three versions of I Am Legend. While The Last Man on Earth and the I Am Legend movie stick with the idea of quasi-undead nocturnal hunters stalking our hero, Sagal's film turns the main menace into a religious cult: "The Family," led by a TV newscaster turned mad prophet (Anthony Zerbe). They conform to Matheson by being forced by their albinism to hide from the light during the day, but they are intelligent (albeit clinically delusional) creatures driven by an ideology that blames "the Punishment" on man's dependence on technology. Matthias, the leader, wants to take his remnant of mankind back to medieval simplicity, symbolized by the black robes and hoods the Family wear. Matthias doesn't know Robert Neville personally but may have heard of this military doctor as one of the experts struggling to find a cure for the plague. He hates Neville as a "slave of the wheel," a symbol of the damned past who must be purged before the world can begin anew in Matthias's twisted image. The cult angle is perhaps the most distinctive Seventies touch of the film, though in practice these hooded palefaces, handicapped by their aversion to useful technology like firearms, put one in mind of so many washouts from the Sith Academy. As a Seventies fan I find them sort of cool, but I admit that they come across a little campy as well.

And in this corner, Charlton Heston. As I wrote earlier, when I recently read I Am Legend I heard Heston's voice whenever Neville went on a rant. The actor's cynical yet righteously-indignant mode, perfected as Taylor in Planet of the Apes, is pitch perfect for the character Matheson wrote, and for the first half hour of The Omega Man Heston nails the role. He talks to himself constantly, except for carrying on a one-way conversation with a bust of Julius Caesar on the other side of his chessboard. He arranges a private screening of Woodstock in a desolate theater (three years after the plague the L.A. power grid is still good) and knows the hippie interviews by heart. He shows off a wardrobe worthy of an action figure (safari jacket, track suit, smoking jacket, army jumpsuit) and bares his manly chest with vainglorious frequency. When the Family manages to catapault a burning rock through his open window, he dispassionately extinguishes it and with equal dispassion opens up on his attackers with a machine gun. Unlike the abstemious Vincent Price in The Last Man on Earth, Heston's Neville drinks frequently, and for those who keep score that includes a bottle of J&B. For Chuck, being the last man on earth is the ultimate bachelor pad adventure, and the sheer stupidity of the Family makes it hard for him to pity the world. He's like Col. Kurtz without an army carrying out his own directive: Exterminate All the Brutes.

The Omega Man brings Neville out of his shell sooner than any other version of the story. He gets captured by the Family and interviewed by Matthias before they plant a dunce cap on his head and condemn him to be executed in a sports arena. He gets rescued by some apparently healthy humans led by Lisa, a blaxploitation heroine (Rosalind Cash) and Dutch (Paul Koslo). They're in charge of a bunch of kids, including Lisa's brother who, like her, has a touch of the plague. When he takes a turn for the worse, Neville takes a chance that a vaccine he'd administered to himself could make his blood usable in a serum to cure the disease. As Richie reverts to his natural negritude and Neville scores with Lisa ("I'm not sure if I remember how this works," he says modestly), our hero decides to quit his fortress and trek with his new friends to make a new start somewhere. But Richie proves too good for his own good; if Neville's serum could cure him, couldn't it cure everyone in the Family? He goes to Matthias's lair, he and Lisa having lived with the Family briefly, to offer Neville's services, only to learn with extreme prejudice that Matthias isn't interested in going back to normal. His mistake sets up the final showdown between Neville and Matthias, when we learn that the spear is sometimes mightier than the gun....

Since it looks like some humans will survive, The Omega Man misses the point of Matheson's novel. While Heston's Neville may be an obsolete sort of individual, that's different from the horror of realizing that everything you are and know is not only obsolete but is already being replaced. And it's one thing for Neville to become a "legend" to the inheritors of the earth, the equivalent for them of vampires for humans, and a-damn-nother thing entirely to make him a Christ figure (his blood saves, you see), right down to striking the cruciform pose as he dies. Sagal's film isn't just the least faithful adaptation in tone of I Am Legend, but it's also more dated than The Last Man on Earth, which was made eight years earlier, and more dated than the Will Smith movie will ever get. The Omega Man is more embedded in its time than either other movie, but since that time is the Seventies, its datedness makes it an often-entertaining spectacle that the right audience is quite likely to enjoy immensely. Heston is a hoot, as he usually is in dystopian conditions, and at the same time he gives a respectable performance. Imagine William Shatner in the same role (which could be awful or awesome, depending on your tastes), and then imagine the next step on the evolutionary chart, and you have Charlton Heston. Rosalind Cash keeps pace with him with what looks like a precocious self-parody of a genre archetype that arguably hadn't even come into existence yet -- and she bares her chest nearly as often as Heston does, though not in as frontal a fashion. Also, you can not mow down or set afire too many chalky hooded dudes in a film like this, and in this regard The Omega Man does not neglect its responsibilities. This might not be the most faithful I Am Legend film, but it may be the most fun.

The trailer was uploaded to YouTube by frankyponty.

4 comments:

The Film Connoisseur said...

I watched this one after having read Matheson's novel, needless to say, I was disappointed. It missed the mark horrifically. It fails to capture the mood of Matherson's story, it changes way too many things.

Plus, there are no vampires!

Vincent Price's Last Man on Earth is way superior to this one.

Samuel Wilson said...

As I said while reviewing Last Man, a truly faithful version of I Am Legend remains to be made. None of the three really gets the mood right. To do so would make the theoretical film an actor's movie rather than an action movie.

Matthew Bradley said...

As a longtime Matheson fan, I salute you (and Wendigo) for your perceptive comments on THE OMEGA MAN, I AM LEGEND, THE LAST MAN ON EARTH, and THE NIGHT STALKER. Interestingly, Matheson said he totally approved of casting Heston as Neville, if not the many changes made to his novel; earlier on, he had envisioned Jack Palance in the role. For all its faults (which, in Matheson's opinion, included a miscast Price), LAST MAN is certainly the most faithful version. Interested parties can read more about all three feature-film adaptations in my forthcoming book RICHARD MATHESON ON SCREEN.

Matthew Bradley said...

FYI, RICHARD MATHESON ON SCREEN is tentatively due out in early October. Of course, you can always pre-order it. :-)

http://www.mcfarlandpub.com/book-2.php?id=978-0-7864-4216-4