The Omega Man (1971) – DVD Review
Thanks to the impending blockbuster theatrical release of I AM LEGEND last month, Warner Brothers Home Video dug into the mothballs and unearthed 1971’s THE OMEGA MAN, offering it on DVD, HD-DVD, and Blu-ray disc. THE OMEGA MAN did not much critical respect in its own time, but over the years it has developed a pleasant patina of nostalgic affection, which is clearly shared by the makers of I AM LEGEND, who borrowed almost as much from this film as they did from Richard Matheson’s excellent 1954 novel I Am Legend, on which both screenplays were based. The greatest benefit of viewing the new DVD OMEGA MAN is that the crisp, clear image strips away the varnish to reveal the truth underneath, which is that this is not a very good film. Rather, this is one of those quaint artifacts from the 1970s when Hollywood, after the cultural shift of the ’60s, was trying to make hip, cool films that would appeal to modern audiences, even though the underlying ethos was just as square as ever. The result is enjoyable but, frankly, silly.
Borrowing only bits and pieces from Matheson’s story, about a lone man besieged by a world of vampires, OMEGA MAN omits more than the bloodsuckers; it completely overthrows the essential idea of the book, which is that “normalcy [is] a majority concept, the standard of many and not the standard of just one man.” In a world overrun by the walking dead, the last man alive has become the abnormal one, the freak of nature perceived as a monster by those whose kind he kills. The profound impact of this idea – the existential despair upon contemplating that human standards are ephemeral in the face of catastrophic change – is abandoned in OMEGA MAN, where Charlton Heston’s Robert Neville resolutely remains the film’s standard for normalcy.
Heston is not just the “Omega Man”; he is quite literally “The Man” – the archetypal white authority figure – and he never evinces even a flicker of doubt about his own moral superiority. Both a doctor and a soldier, he carries a gun, and he’s not afraid to use it. He may be a healer, at least theoretically, but mostly he’s interested in exterminating the opposition, not helping them.
This is understandable in the context of the story, because the competition is equally dedicated to destroying Neville, and they have him outnumbered. The “Family” (as in “the Manson Family”) are a group of albino religious fanatics led by Matthias ( Anthony Zerbe), a former news anchorman mutated into a Messiah for the post-apocalyptic New World Order. Although Zerbe gives a powerful performance, the philosophical conflict between him and Heston is undermined because the game is rigged: the Family is drawn in in such one-dimensional brush strokes that they might as well be cartoon figures. No longer the living dead, these mutants (the result of bacteriological warfare) are clearly meant to be a depiction of what would happen if the Woodstock generation had a shot at running the world: they hate the old establishment; they hate technology; they hate the military; and they hate Neville, the last remnant of the institutions responsible for the worldwide destruction. (Just to hammer home the point, the opening sequence of OMEGA MAN features Neville watching WOODSTOCK.)
The fact that Matthias is, to some extent, right (science and the military did unleash the plague that killed most of the world’s population) is more or less ignored, and the morality of Neville’s quest to kill the Family is never questioned. If they were vampires – soulless, reanimated bodies – this would be easy to accept, but these are victims of the plague, and Neville (we eventually learn) has the means to cure them, but he knows it would be worthless to try. There can be no negotiation or settlement; you’re either with Neville, or you’re against him.
This approach extends to the allies that Neville eventually finds: we know they are the good guys because the accept the wisdom and authority of the Establishment figure. Lisa (a black woman played with some verve by Rosalind Cash) initially strikes an almost militant attitude toward Neville, until she warms up to him and goes to bed with him. That the film does not shy away from an inter-racial romance is laudable, but in the context of the film, it feels like a strong female character learning to submit to a superior white man because he’s just too damn virile, smart, and attractive to resist. Lisa’s brother, the one “good kid” who fails to mindlessly follow Neville’s dictates, ends up dead for naively offering a cure to the Family (thus “proving” that Neville was right not to even try). Lisa’s comrades, a band of survivors who look like some kind of a commune, represents the film’s approving portrait of how “good” youth society should behave: they prove they are okay by acknowledging Neville’s greatness with barely disguised religious awe: “Christ, you’re blood could save the world!” exclaims one.
That statement supposedly refers to the immunity that Neville may be able to pass on to others, but the symbolism is so obvious that it almost overwhelms the plot point. In case you missed it, the director visualizes it for you at the end: In a sequence that beggars the imagination, Neville even gets speared, just like Jesus on the cross, and then stands propped up against a fountain until morning, just so the director can have him hold that oh-so-powerful crucifixion pose.
Not only is the symbolism heavy-handed; the action is badly staged and absurdly anti-climactic. Neville is wounded but Matthias does not finish him off. Lisa is infected and wants to join the family, but stays by Neville. The script hints that his is because daylight is rapidly approaching, but the footage looks like midnight, and a fadeout only amplifies the sense of time slowly passing in darkness. When dawn does break, the people from the commune drive up in a jeep, pick up Lisa (who will no doubt be cured by an injection of Neville’s redeeming blood), and then they just drive away, leaving Heston to sink into the waters of the fountain, his arms spreading out at the appropriate angles. That’s it. No drama, no impact, no resolution, no nothing.
Thus ends this pretentious yet curiously entertaining relic of the 1970s. Seen today, the film is obviously a missed opportunity; it may be fun, bu it could have been great. The early scenes (of Neville foraging through the deserted streets of Los Angeles) have an almost epic quality, and it is easy to see how they inspired similar footage in 2007’s I AM LEGEND. Too often, however, the film has that over-lit, made-for-TV look that infected too many features films in the ’70s, and Ron Grainer’s score (an incongruous mix of jazz and lounge music) is almost laughable in its dated attempt to make the proceedings sound hip.
THE OMENGA MAN seems to be a film that fell victim to its own aspirations. Making a movie about vampires was not good enough, so instead the writers tried to update the material and make a contemporary statement. Twenty-seven years later, vampires area as timeless as ever, but the themes of THE OMEGA MAN seem so dated that it’s hard to imagne anyone ever took them seriously.
The film’s title is a bit of a misnomer: Heston’s character turns out not to be the “Omega Man.” The mistake extends to the advertising copy in the coming attractions trailer, which states, “The Last Man on Earth is Not Alone.” In fact, not counting the mutated “Family” (which contains many infected men), there is one other completely normal, uninfected male adult in the film, along with several women and children, suggesting there may be others as well. The early discovery of these other normal humans undermines one of the most interesting aspects of the film, which is watching Robert Neville trying to maintain his sanity in a world where he has no companionship of any kind.
The 2007 Warner Brothers DVD offers a very nice widescreen transfer of the film. One quirk of the film is that there seem to have been several instances where the editor tried to speed up action by cutting out frames in the middle of shots; although these deletions were no doubt intended to be invisible, they leave noticeable jump cuts at several points, which could lead you to think your DVD is malfunctioning.
There are audio options for English and French, along with optional English, French, or Spanish subtitles. The film is broken into 30 chapters, illustrated with still images, so you will have an easy time navigating to your favorite scenes.
The bonus features include a new Introduction, a featurette called “The Last Man Alive,” a brief text article looking at Heston’s science-fiction films, a theatrical trailer, and a cast-and-crew list. There is no input from Heston.
The Introductionis actually more of a short retrospective, featuring interviews with screenwriter Joyce H. Corrington and actors Paul Koslo and Eric Laneuville. Corrington explains that it “just didn’t feel right to do vampires. I have a Ph.D in chemistry, so germ warfare […] was on my mind as a way you could wipe out civilization.” She also takes credit for making the leading lady black. Laneuville recalls his excitement, as a young actor in his first movie, to be working with star Heston. Koslo expresses admiration for Heston’s performance in his solo scenes, particularly when he is mouthing lines while watching WOODSTOCK.
“The Last Man Alive” is a promotional feature that was shot during the production of OMEGA MAN. Much of it is devoted to Heston conferring with anthropologist Ashley Montague on the set, discussing the characterization of Neville and how he would keep his sanity when his society and culture are gone. There is also some nice behind-the-scenes footage of director Boris Sagal setting up the action scenes. Interestingly, this making-of featurette makes clear a plot point left vague in the actual film: the obstacles he runs into while driving his car during the day are supposed to be booby traps set up by the family at night.
The “Science Fiction Legend” article gives a brief rundown of Heston’s genre credits, which include PLANET OF THE APES, BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES, SOYLENT GREEN, and THE AWAKENING.
The three-minute trailer captures the schizophrenic nature of the film: the first third emphasizes Heston’s in the empty city; the second two-thirds squeeze in as many gunshots, stunts, and explosions as possible.
The DVD does not offer the most exhaustive examination of THE OMEGA MAN imaginable, but it does give a good glimpse into the making of a film. Fans may be disappointed, but those checking it out just from curiosity (especially those inspired by I AM LEGEND) will find it more than satisfying.