It is 1978, over two years since a conflict between China and Russia resulted in the release of bio-chemical weapons that have destroyed almost the entire population of the planet. We meet the apparent sole survivor, a scientist named Robert Neville who injected himself with a vaccine before the destruction came. He is now immune and stuck spending his days in the never-ending chores of survival. When it’s light, he forages for food and seeks signs of other life. He also hunts for the headquarters of The Family, a dark loving group of disease-altered mutants who want to kill Neville. Their leader, the crazy, charismatic Matthias, sees Neville as a personification of the technological evil that led the world to destroy itself. He wants to be the one who wipes out this “human plague” once and for all. Their battles of weapons and wills consume their lives.
That is, until Neville runs into Lisa and Dutch, two additional survivors who are caring for a group of kids. Unlike Neville, they are all infected with the germ. But they have not changed as quickly as The Family, meaning there is still time for Neville to find a cure. As he battles to find a way to keep Lisa’s brother Ritchie from “turning,” the mutants up their campaign against their mortal enemy. But not everyone can survive the terrors, the torment, and the treachery of being the last one left on Earth. Someone will be The Omega Man.
Since it was first published in 1954, Richard Matheson’s grim story of the last man on earth and his battle to survive has become a prized cinematic commodity. Back in 2002, Ridley Scott was developing I Am Legend to star a pumped up Arnold Schwarzenegger. Sets were designed and effects prepared. Fans couldn’t wait to see the Blade Runner visionary’s take on the material. Eventually, the plans for that version of the novel were scuttled, and Will Smith pegged Constantine director Francis Lawrence to jerryrig his own schizophrenic adaptation of the tome. Luckily, there are still two other movies out there, both with their own set of motion picture setbacks. Each one tried to capture Matheson’s sense of isolation and menace, and for the most part, each one more or less succeeded.
Vincent Price starred in the Italian-made The Last Man on Earth, a decent little B-movie from 1964 that sought to stick to as many of the epic notions that the novel envisioned without bankrupting the budget. And then there was 1971’s The Omega Man, the Charlton Heston sci-fi vehicle that marked the A-list superstar’s second foray into the realm of future shock (with 1968’s Planet of the Apes behind him and 1973’s Soylent Green looming ahead). Given a name symbolizing its place in the Greek alphabet (Omega is the 24th and last letter) and modifying Matheson’s story of vampires out for blood to a more socially consciousness, anti-war, and proliferation statement, this effective, if occasionally eccentric, take on the material has long been a cult favorite. Some buy the changes in the story and find the new, idealistic enemies threatening indeed. Others simply shake their head and wonder when someone will give the gifted Matheson his due.
The Omega Man does so many things right that when the two things it gets completely wrong rear their ugly, ill-considered heads it’s almost enough to destroy the entire film. Director Boris Sagal, a veteran of television, does one of the better jobs of conveying a post-Armageddon environment for his characters to function in. It is rare when his abandoned streets and empty shops feel like back lots or sound stages. There is an attention to detail (the beginning of vegetation overgrowth, masses of intertwined cobwebs) that really sells the isolation and desertion. Never once is the spell broken. And then he finds an actor who seems to purposefully carry the weight and fate of the world on his broad, beefy shoulders.
Heston is a very physical actor, a presence that’s not model attractive or body builder perfect, but does resonate a strong, heroic determination. Frankly, if the risk had been taken to simply let Chuck be the last ACTUAL person on the planet, he could pull it off brilliantly. Even reduced to stagy sequences of externalized internal monologues, he sells the silly characteristic very well. Heston is often accused of over the top scenery chewing, and anyone who remembers the ending of Green or the “damn dirty ape” histrionics of Planet will tend to agree.
But in The Omega Man, we see a much more subtle, subdued protagonist, a man battling the outer threat of the gang of mutants known as “The Family” as well as the personal demons of loneliness and dogged preparedness. It requires him to turn the bravura down several notches and still remain powerful and potent. And Heston rises to the occasion flawlessly.
It’s just too bad, then, that the flaws in the film are so near fatal. Some people argue that, while not novel specific, the fiendish force of The Family makes the perfect frightening foil for Heston’s Robert Neville. But aside from the times when they mock him, calling his name out in childlike singsong from the shadows, the overall effect of these diseased drones is campy, not creepy. It’s like being trapped in a cult full of giggly albino Earth-First luddites.
As their leader, Anthony Zerbe gives both Charles Manson (who seems to have been an obvious model) and the Rev. Jim Jones a run for their rhetoric with his “back to the basics” balderdash. His and his clan’s motivation (no more science or technology, including the wheel!) seems stupid, self-righteous, and downright suicidal, and their stark lack of skin pigmentation will probably only scare those people who find clowns, or Edgar Winter, unnerving. If they didn’t try to stab or set fire to Heston, the only thing he would have to fear from them is being pontificated to death.
The other weak link is Ritchie, the young black boy saved from “the plague” by Neville’s scientific discoveries (and, to some extent, his sister Lisa). Their presence in Chuck’s life seems superfluous to all that is going on, as if to add a humanizing and womanizing angle to Neville’s non-stop battle for survival. Indeed, time and The Family’s terrorizing of Heston seems to stop so he can treat the child and do a little repopulating with Lisa. The fact that they are associated with Dutch, a hippie ex-medical student biker who harbors, “Christ-like,” a group of orphaned children, shows the sanctimonious tone that undermines the potential thrill and chills to be had. When it’s lean and mean, The Omega Man is an effective and evocative thriller. When it’s heavy handed and preachy, it’s stifling.