Sunday, January 27, 2019

The Omega Man: Charlton Heston as the Last (Uninfected) Human on Earth

Charlton Heston fires at a window.
The Cafe staff recently conducted a poll on Twitter asking film fans to select their favorite adaptation of Richard Matheson’s sci fi-horror novel I Am Legend. To our surprise, the overwhelming choice was The Omega Man (1971), which starred Charlton Heston as the last man on Earth.

Heston plays scientist Robert Neville, the only survivor of a biological war between Russia and China. Neville injected himself with an experimental serum while the rest of mankind was infected with a plague that turned them into light-intolerant albinos. Even worse, some of the survivors in L.A. formed a cult called "the family" that's dedicated to reinventing humanity—and killing Neville. For his part, the former scientist methodically hunts down the plague-infected creatures and destroys them, earning him the nickname of "Angel of Death."

Rosalind Cash as Lisa.
Neville's mundane existence receives a jolt when he discovers a hip, leather-clad African American woman named Lisa (Rosalind Cash). She appears to be healthy, but Neville later learns that she and a group of others are infected. They just haven't "turned" yet. Taking an active interest in Lisa and her ill brother Richie, Neville dedicates himself to creating a serum from his blood.

The striking opening scene of The Omega Man has Neville driving his red convertible down the empty streets of L.A. as he listens to "A Summer Place" on an eight-track player. Suddenly, he slams on his brakes and empties his automatic rifle at a figure in a window. After the film's credits, a chilling montage reveals the banality of Neville's existence. He selects a new car...and drives it out the showroom window. He watches Woodstock in an empty movie theater as he mouths the dialogue with the people on the screen. He prepares for the nightly onslaught of "the family." There is no joy, no excitement, no feeling in any of these actions.

If this part of The Omega Man sounds familiar, then you have probably read Matheson's 1954 novel or have seen the first adaptation, 1964's The Last Man on Earth. Although the latter is a low-budget effort starring Vincent Price, it's more faithful to the source book in which the creatures are vampires created by a plague. Written by Matheson under a pseudonym, it's also a far better film than The Omega Man.

Anthony Zerbe as the cult's leader.
However, the decision to make the plague creatures disease-riddled cultists, instead of zombie-like vampires, is not what dooms The Omega Man. Although I personally like the vampire concept better, the albino creatures are interesting in that they are more human-like. We can empathize with their plight and understand why they want to destroy Neville and all that he stands for.

The Omega Man falters when the plots shifts to Neville and Lisa. Their interracial romance is no longer as daring as it may have been in '71 and there is zero chemistry between Heston and co-star Cash (her overly hip attitude also seemed dated).  The screenplay turns sloppy as well with characters making boneheaded decisions:  Lisa goes shopping on her own, her brother tries to reason with the family, and Neville forgets to turn on his generators at nightfall. Finally, there's some heavy-handed symbolism in one of the closing shots that seems terribly out of place.

Not surprising, Richard Matheson was not a fan of The Omega Man, but then the same could be said of The Last Man on Earth and Will Smith's 2007 film I Am Legend. Matheson adapted his novel for Hammer Films in the 1960s, but it ran into censorship problems before the production even started. Matheson sold his script, but it was altered and produced as Last Man. It may be flawed, but--as mentioned earlier--it remains the best version of  I Am Legend.

3 comments:

  1. I remember Heston from The Big Country with Gregory Peck, Carroll Baker and Jean Simmons, The Greatest Show On Earth with Betty Hutton and Cornel Wilde, and Gideon with one of my favorite actors Carroll OConnor and two underrated actors Nike Connors and Harvey Korman. Gideon also starred Shelley Winters, Shirley Jones, Barbara Bain, Crystal Bernard, and in the title role Christopher Lambert.

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  2. In the above post I meant Mike Connors.

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  3. The film does take a nosedive of sorts after such an engaging beginning. Charlton Heston was the perfect choice to play Neville. He has the toughness that someone in this position would need.

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