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Looking Back At THE OMEGA MAN

Matthew Kresal takes a look back the 1971 Charlton Heston Sci-Fi Thriller, The Omega Man.

Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel I Am Legend has proven over time to be both a seminal piece of fiction in its own right and rich ground for filmmakers to work from. Though the 2007 movie staring Will Smith is likely the cinematic version readers are most aware of, it was not the first time that the novel had been adapted for the screen. One of those earlier film versions was The Omega Man, which itself has become something of a cult classic since it's release in 1971.

Like its more modern counterpart, the success of the film relies heavily on the strength of its leading man's performance due to the “last man on Earth” premise. Having established his genre credentials in Planet Of The Apes, Charlton Heston plays Neville, a former scientist and military man who came up with an experimental vaccine against a bio-weapon turned plague, struggles to keep his sanity between sheer loneliness and the threat of his fellow “survivors” who wish his destruction. The script gives Heston plenty to work with, from “action hero” moments to comedic scenes (such as in a used car dealership very early on in the film) and even some fleeting touching moments as well. Indeed, his performance also helps to make some of the film's cheesier lines and scenes seem believable. Heston's Neville more or less carries half of the film by himself (and especially the opening fifteen to twenty minutes) and he never fails to keep the viewer engaged and interested in what is happening.

The tagline of “the last man alive...is not alone!” tells us that there's more to The Omega Man than Heston, though. Leading the supporting cast is Anthony Zerbe as Matthias, a former TV anchorman turned leader of the group of mutated, nocturnal albino like plague survivors called “The Family” who seek to destroy Neville. Zerbe’s performance is oddly compelling, almost theatrical at times, as he plays the role of a crazed cult leader to the hilt. Playing the proverbial “omega woman” is Rosalind Cash as Lisa, though her performance is very much hampered by the fact that the script makes her into a “Black Power” caricature and as result has become incredibly dated. Much the same can be said of the performances of Eric Laneuville as Richie and Lincoln Kilpatrick as Zachary. The results then are mixed but, despite the dating of some performances, they help to keep the film moving and interesting.

The Omega Man also features some strong production values for its time as well. In particular, there are some effective shots of an emptied out Los Angeles produced decades before CGI made it much easier to accomplish. Those shots are put to their best use during the film’s first half and, along with stock footage and a few scenes in a flashback depicting the plague, help to firmly place the viewer into the film’s apocalyptic world. While the makeup used for The Family might not be up to 21st century standards, it is surprisingly effective especially in a reveal about midway through the film. Then there’s the score from British composer Ron Grainer, the man behind such TV themes such as Doctor Who and The Prisoner, which mixes a number of styles together to create something that is memorable if at times odd for the film it's in.

Yet the thing that perhaps stands out most about The Omega Man, along with Heston’s performance, is its script. Writers John William Corrington and Joyce H. Corrington (who went on to script the fifth and final film of the original Planet Of The Apes series) loosely adapted Matheson’s novel and updated it somewhat for the early 1970s. The cause of the plague for example is a bio-weapon used in a war between China and the Soviet Union (something which, following some high profile border skirmishes in the 1960s looked very likely to happen when this was made) that turns into a pandemic. Indeed, for those who know the source material, there are many differences (such as the fact that Matheson’s novel was a vampire story done in a science fiction context which, by Joyce H. Corrington’s own admission on a DVD special feature, was something they dumped very quickly) but things are certainly brought from the original work into the film as well. The Corrngton's script then takes the bare bones of Matheson’s novel, adding some action sequences, and very much does its own take on it.

The results of that are at times compelling. There are some fascinating subtexts going on in the film such as Neville’s struggle to preserve a last vestige of civilization against the barbaric, nocturnal albino Family who see the world as it was, and therefore Neville, as evil (as Matthias describes Neville at one point: “One creature, caught. Caught in a place he cannot stir from in the dark, alone, outnumbered hundreds to one, nothing to live for but his memories, nothing to live with but his gadgets, his cars, his guns, gimmicks... and yet the whole family can't bring him down…”). There’s also an interesting quasi-Biblical subtext going on as well that becomes almost blatantly obvious at times during the back half of the film and especially in its final scene (this was an element that the more recent film with Will Smith used quite heavily). That all being said parts of the script, like the film as a whole, have also dated horribly, especially its African-American characters and some of its dialogue, something that as noted above hampers a few of the performances. For those faults though it is the script, both in its events and thematic elements, that makes the film compelling and entertaining.

The Omega Man then, despite its loose adaptation of Matheson's novel, is an interesting film in its own right. Like many films of its era, though, it has become dated and downright cheesy in places, yet the performance of Charlton Heston and its script has also given it the ability to stand the test of time as well. The Omega Man then, as mixed as its various elements are at times, is ninety-eight entertaining and at times thought provoking minutes. 

Matthew Kresal lives in North Alabama where he's a nerd, doesn't have a southern accent and isn't a Republican. He's a host of both the Big Finish centric Stories From The Vortex podcast and the 20mb Doctor Who Podcast. You can read more of his writing at his blog and at The Terrible Zodin fanzine, amongst other places.
This article was first published August 25th, 2014. 

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