Nobody particularly wants to go around disturbing a six-year-old child… He wasn’t around any of the bad stuff, so he has no visual memory of that stuff. And I hope he won’t see the film until he is of an appropriate age.
—John Moore, Christianity Today (31 May 2006)
Lots of little sixes swirl at the start of The Omen. Ostensibly, this digital bittiness is ominous. Actually, it’s small. And it leads more or less directly to the opening scene in the Vatican Observatory (they’ve got everything at the Vatican), where a mighty ceiling slides open so an officious fellow can scope the skies for a comet—a comet bearing bad news.
That news would be the coming of the antichrist, here a cute-seeming swaddling child born to a jackal and Satan. You don’t see this part, the birth, or even much in the way of the lead-up, but several haunted-looking men later refer to it, and at some point the bones of a jackal are revealed in a grave where a woman is supposed to be: no coffin, not much decay, just a neatly curled-up doggie skeleton cast into the bottom of a very deep dark hole. Those Satanists, they do have a flair for the dramatic.
But long before that horrendous revelation—which leaves the hapless gravediggers gasping for breath just before they’re assaulted by a pack of big black grave-guarding dogs—the antichrist’s coming is foretold, so we’re told, by signs out of Revelations, namely, attack on the Twin Towers, Katrina, the Columbia disaster. According to prognosticators in John Moore’s Omen, these and other signs sans news footage (say, that comet) augur ill and expressly. Self-described “lapsed Catholic” Moore resists the suggestion that the movie exploits these traumas, claiming instead they indicate the “very fearful and hateful times” in which we live. That said, The Omen doesn’t exactly nuance the point, but instead drops in the familiar grainy images as so much emotional and maybe moral provocation. They’re available buttons for pushing, and so the movie, which otherwise adheres rather ardently to the 1976 original’s plot, offers this reading of the imminent end of days. (We can only hope that the rumors about George Bush subscribing to such thinking are irrelevant, at least to the movie.)
The demon-child—as everyone knows—is Damien (played at six by Shamus Davey-Fitzpatrick). His human handlers arrange to have him go home from a Roman hospital with American ambassador Robert Thorn (Liev Schreiber) and his wife Katherine (Julia Stiles). The plot is full of complicating caveats, none so interesting as the film seems to think they are, but suffice it to say that Kate has gone into the hospital in labor, and leaves thinking this infant is her own, owing to an unconscionable deal struck by her husband with one of the solicitous priests lurking in the hospital hallway shadows. The fact that Robert goes along with this scheme, even if he does believe he’s doing it to save his wife the pain of knowing her own baby has died, is so horrific that you dislike him right off. And indeed, he never recovers from this infraction: he remains, in your mind, self-involved, arrogant, and on occasion downright cruel (not precisely Gregory Peck).
And so Kate becomes your point of identification, only she’s so immersed in emblems of her own impending doom that she seems annoying for not getting a clue already. She’s repeatedly clothed in white or deep, bloody red garments and looking lost in stark, too-spacious interiors in the couple’s new abode in London (where Robert is assigned to be ambassador following the death of his boss/mentor), whether she’s in a dream or some semblance of “waking life.” Kate rightly suspects Damien of being “not right.” Sadly for her, she’s stuck inside a life with this ooky-eyed kid, whose preposterous performance is less fearsome than silly, even inadvertently comic.
Condemned to the usual girl-in-a-horror-movie antics, Kate turns away in horror when her son’s very odd nanny jumps off a rooftop attached to a conveniently located noose, then hires a scary replacement nanny (Mia Farrow), lets her keep a scary dog and feed the child scary bright red strawberries by hand. While Kate is left pretty much alone while she tries to tamp down her growing anxiety, Robert heads to the embassy, where he’s accosted by gaunt Father Brennan (Pete Postlethwaite, who has all but patented the character he plays here). “I saw its mother,” he murmurs mournfully. “You must accept the Lord Jesus.”
Unnerved but unmoved, Robert is slightly more inclined to believe the “evidence” presented to him by dogged journalist Keith Jennings (David Thewlis): photos showing inexplicable shafts of light through doomed figures. (The doom is only clear after the fact, of course.) As he still hasn’t informed his wife that her son is not hers, Robert spends less and less time at home, and Kate spends her days watching Damien frighten other kids and monkeys at the zoo, or watering her hanging plants. She has no friends, no interests, no hope. At last she turns to an unhelpful shrink (Richard Rees), who embodies all the institutional and moral restrictions she faces daily, and by this time, you’re wanting everyone to jump off rooftops, preferably with nooses.
The film does provide for a series of gruesome death scenes, including a gasoline explosion, a fierce penetration, and a decapitation, all willed by Damien, his panting black-doggy minions, or his odious off-screen daddy (does it really matter?). The deaths themselves look cheap (shot from high and long to emphasize the gore), though the run-up to each is prolonged and smart-ass, essentially ripped off from Final Destination. Neither shocking nor funny enough (save for the car-slam, which is startling, if not convincing), these mini-set-pieces suggest the film is in fact quite uninterested in exploring portentous signs or earthly iniquities, bad faith or inept fathering. It is, at last, about Kate, the mother who distrusts her child and shouldn’t trust her husband. She doesn’t have a chance.