Wednesday, March 16, 2011

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: The Omega Man (1971)

"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..."

-Matthias (Anthony Zerbe) contemplates Neville (Charlton Heston) in The Omega Man (1971).

As I wrote in Horror Films of the 1970s (2002), Charlton Heston is legend. 

To the kids who grew up in the 1970s, the great actor is not the larger-than-life religious messiah of The Ten Commandments, nor the 1990s-era NRA Hawk of "from my cold, dead hands" infamy.  Rather, Heston remains the ultimate science-fiction anti-hero and bad ass.

In a relatively short-span (from 1968 to 1973), Heston fronted four remarkable dystopic and post-apocalyptic science-fiction visions: Planet of the Apes, Beneath the Planet of the Apes, The Omega Man and Soylent Green. 

He did so with cocksure arrogance and larger-than-life charisma, prompting Pauline Kael to note on one occasion that Heston was a "god-like hero, built for archetype of what makes Americans win."

Call it the Heston Mystique.

It's a truly unusual and specific alchemy at work in these particular films.  Planet of the Apes, The Omega Man and Soylent Green are all authentic leftist nightmare visions of unpleasant futures; pointing to the folly of nuclear or germ warfare, and railing against environmental apocalypse, militarism, and entrenched corporate, political and even religious interests. 

And yet in all these instances we have this grinning, caustic  icon of the right-wing countenancing such concerns...the last man standing, the last man advocating for our way of life.

Even if our way of life -- in some sense -- is directly to blame for the apocalypse at hand. 

Only Nixon could go to China, and only Charlton Heston could take on such terrifying, dystopian worlds, perhaps.  But the frisson generated as a right-wing icon takes on traditionally left-wing concerns about the end of the world grants each of the aforementioned films a special kind of enduring power and resonance, that's for certain.

Although The Omega Man arrived smack in the middle of this cycle of Heston sci-fi films (after Apes and before Soylent), it really makes the most of this his unique persona.  The film opens with Heston -- decked out in cool sun-glasses -- patrolling the lonely streets of a post-apocalypse 20th century city in his red convertible.  He races down the garbage-strewn boulevards, listening to Max Steiner's Theme from "A Summer Place." 

Then, he sees a shadowy figure move in a nearby edifice's upstairs window.  And he whips out a machine gun...

It's one of those wonderful movie moments: first trading on well-articulated feelings of loneliness and isolation (enhanced by the epic, long-distance aerial shots), and then reaching for terror...and a just little bit of humor as Heston -- singular defender of the human race -- cuts loose on an enemy quite abruptly. 

Later in the same scene, Heston dons a stylish tan jacket that makes it look as though he's out on safari.  He carries a red gas tank in one hand and his machine gun in the other, and thus is perfectly accessorized to stave off the End of Life As We Know It. Coupled with Ron Granier's heroic, rousing score, this moment in The Omega Man really...kicks. 

If you ever want to dissect the unusual Heston Mystique, this moment is probably the place to start.

Another suitable place would be the scene in The Omega Man in which Heston informs the leader of the Family -- a group of albino mutants -- that he's "full of crap."

"Is this the conclusion of all our yesterdays?  Is this the end of technological mankind?"

The Omega Man is the second silver screen adaptation of Richard Matheson's 1954 landmark novel, I am Legend.

The first version starred Vincent Price and was called The Last Man on Earth (1964).  The third, I am Legend (2007), headlined Will Smith.  The Omega Man has often been termed the least faithful of the cinematic bunch, yet in many ways it's also the best film of the three, neither ultra-low budget nor saddled with dated and ridiculous CGI effects.

In The Omega Man,  Colonel Robert Neville (Heston) has survived a biological plague that, in March of 1975, wiped out the vast majority of mankind.  As the story opens, it is the year 1977, and Neville -- living a life of unending isolation -- devotes his days to discovering the location of  "the Hive;" the hideout for The Family, a menacing gang of neo-Luddite, photophobic mutants.  If Neville owns daylight in this metropolis, the Family owns the night.  And every midnight, the Family surrounds his urban dwelling and calls Neville out, hoping to destroy this last remnant of technological man. 

The Family's leader, the loquacious Matthias (Zerbe) believes that the plague was God's punishment of man; judgment on his dependence and belief in science and technology.  Now, he and his "Family" devote their lives to burning books and works of art, and destroying all evidence of 20th century technology. 

"In the beginning, we tried to help one another, those that were left," he tells Neville.  "We tried to clean things up, set things straight. We buried things and burned. Then it came to me that we were chosen. Chosen for just this work: To bury what was dead. To burn what was evil. To destroy what was dangerous." 

In short, Matthias gives new meaning to the term eliminationalist rhetoric.  He wants nothing less than to erase Neville -- and twenty centuries of human development -- from the history books.
While out in the city one day, Neville unexpectedly encounters a fellow survivor named Lisa (Rosalind Cash).  She is allied with a brilliant med-student, Dutch (Paul Koslo) and several small children.  All of them are currently unaffected by the still-rampant plague, but could "turn" at any moment. 

When Neville realizes that mankind could have a future again in this small group, he re-doubles his effort to produce a vaccine for the germ that destroyed almost all life on Earth.  He realizes that the key to destroying the plague involves his own untainted blood...

"Your art, your was all a nightmare, and now it's finished."

In some respects, the first portion of The Omega Man -- with Heston's Neville alone in a vast urban jungle of glass, cement and metal -- remains the strongest and most memorable portion of the film.

Neville continually drops one-liners, to an audience of one: himself. 

"Another day, another dollar."  "There's never a cop around when you need one."  And -- during a viewing of Woodstock (1970) -- "They sure don't make pictures like that anymore."

All these jokes are determinedly cliched, and yet these familiar turns-of-phrase from before the apocalypse also seem poignant because they no longer carry their original meanings. Rather, they call attention to Neville's plight. 

Another day another dollar?  Money is worthless

There's never a cop around when you need one?  There's nobody aroundPeriod.

They sure don't make pictures like that?  In fact, no new movies are being made. 

Neville's sarcastic running commentary reveals just how pointless and empty his life has become; and how impossible it is to forget the past, and the dead. 

Another exemplary scene early in the film finds Neville hunting down the Family in the empty Hotel Premiere.  He passes through a fancy hall with a grand chandelier, and then moves into a dining room where a long dinner table is still set with the finest china and linens.  Again, table settings, fancy dishes, frilly gold curtains, and ornate light fixtures seem damned unimportant in the face of extinction.  The visuals in this scene get at that idea; at the notion of man as having gone the way of the dodo or the dinosaur; with only these empty forms and shapes left behind.

Many such moments early in the film practically tingle with this electric idea of a fully-decorated but unpopulated world, as well as Neville's seething, caustic anger about his fate.  For instance, there's a moment when he spies a pin-up calendar on a car dealership wall, and has to take it down.  He can't bear to look at it; to be reminded of the fairer sex.  It's just too much to bear..

And the scene in the movie theater, with Neville lip-synching the words to hippie dialogue in Woodstock (1970) is some kind of twisted genius.  It gets to the tension inherent in casting right-wing Heston in a role such as this (or in the role of Taylor in Planet of the Apes).  Heston's Neville doesn't give a flying hoot for the hippies or their counter-culture belief system.  But here he is, alone at the end of the world, and, well, he'll settle even for a hippie's faux profundity as company. 

By having Neville accept and repeat the words of Woodstock, the movie knowingly puts this guy in the role of humanity's defender.  Messy humanity's defender, I should say, longing for all the species' stupid conflicts, nonsense, and silliness.  Neville is there...celebrating it; mourning it.  It's the equivalent of George Clooney playing Neville after the apocalypse, lip-synching to a Rush Limbaugh recording, or a Bill O'Reilly show.  There's a tension to it; an irony.  And a poignancy too.

The Omega Man also thrives as a good old fashioned action film.  There's an exhilarating motorcycle escape in a football-stadium, scored heroically -- again -- by Granier, and culminating in a slow-motion jump.  It's sort of refreshing and eye-opening how basic and well-staged it is, with no digital effects or CGI backgrounds or herky-jerky camera work and editing.  To quote Neville, "they don't make pictures like this anymore."

I suppose most of the ire and brickbats directed at The Omega Man over the years involve the film's ending.  In case you've forgotten, the climax finds Neville speared to a modern art fountain outside his apartment.  As he dies in a pool of his own life-saving blood, Neville slips into a Christ pose; of Jesus Christ on the cross.   I know this ending really upset critic Howard Thompson at The New York Times, who called it "phony" and "florid."

I agree that this ending is bracing, but would nonetheless argue that the way for it is is paved early on.  A young girl gazes at Neville admiringly and asks, "Are you God?"  If that's not a clear set-up for the quasi-religious denouement, I don't know what would be. 

But on more basic terms, what's intrinsically wrong or wrong-headed with the comparison of Neville to Christ?  Both men die for the sins of the world; and both die giving humanity a second chance.  In John 1:7, it is writtenand the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin.”   In the case of Neville, his blood will also cleanse humanity of the plague; the sin of germ warfare made manifest in flesh. 

Secondly, a critical part of Matheson's original novel is the mythologizing of Neville as a kind of bedtime story for the vampires, a bogeyman.  Though The Omega Man de-mythologizes and de-romanticizes the tale to a considerable degree, this ending brings it all back in.  This movie's events serve, in a sense, as an origin story of how mankind got a second chance. 

That line of Scripture quoted above actually begins with the words "If ye walk in the light, as he is in the light.."  And consider too that throughout the film, Neville is dramatically associated with the light; just as the Family is associated with the dark.  Neville only operates in the day time, and he preserves also the light of knowledge: of literature, art, medicine and science.  In the case of the latter two, those are the very things which enable Neville to share his life-giving blood.

So the Crucifixion pose, if you will, not only works thematically; but it works in terms of the literal story and what these characters witness and will come to remember.  This is especially true of the children, particularly that little girl who asked if Neville is God.  She will grow up and tell her children about the man whose blood saved the human race. 

To some -- especially as generations pass -- Neville will indeed seem as a God, or at least a Savior.

I don't find the ending of The Omega Man  sacreligious or profane, or even overly florid.  I think it's the perfect and valid ending to Neville's particular story. After having spent years in the "wilderness" of Los Angeles alone, he  returns to humanity and finds redemption both for himself and his people.  He has gone from being "hostile" and "not belonging" to saving the human race.  Furthermore, the casting of Heston, whom many associate with religious imagery because of Ten Commandments, lends further validity to a religious or mythological interpetation of Neville's life.

Finally, I've been writing about dystopias a lot lately.  There gets to be, at some point, common ground with the post-apocalyptic film.  They aren't always one in the same, but in the case of The Omega Man, I would argue that they are.  The film depicts not just life after the fall of man, but a new and terrifying order, a "Family" (in the style of Charles Manson's) that wants to burn and destroy everything of value, from art to literature to sculpture.  This Family would leave the Earth in a new Dark Age without beauty, without imagination, without past, and therefore without potential.

That's the "Hell," so-to-speak, that Neville delivers the world from.  And that's why he earns his valedictory crucifixion.


  1. Hey JKM;

    Terrific piece. I've said it before, your blog always seems to uncover aspects of iconic films I haven't seen discussed before - the exciting and stylish action scenes, the ending's function as jumping off point for a new mythology, even a new religion (which probably would have worked better if they'd kept the book's title, but never mind).

    I'm not sure from today's vantage point how much of Heston's conservative mystique is something we ourselves bring to the project based on what he became in the 80's - at the time people might have remembered him politically for his vocal support of civil rights in the early 60's (I recently watched a vid of Heston, Brando, Belafonte, Poitier, Ralph Ellison, and some other celebs discussing the march on Washington which they had participated in that very day - ). He was also SAG president (but then, so was Reagan).

    So maybe people at the time thought of him as a George Clooney-type?

    But at the same time I seem to remember he was known to the counterculture as a Reaganite before that particular strain spread nationwide. So I dunno.

    In an interview in an old Starlog (I have got to go dig these things out of the garage) Heston spoke specifically about his SF work, and was pretty clear that Taylor's views of mankind coincided with his own, especially at that time. He also seems to have played a strong role in steering the SF movies, and states that they were all reflective of his personal concerns at the time (though he really, really didn't want to do "Beneath the Planet of the Apes").

    His definitive Long John Silver notwithstanding, he was really only good at playing one specific type of character (Moses, Taylor, Neville, and Leningen ["The Naked Jungle"] are all variations) but no one ever played it better. And probably no one ever will.

  2. Totally awesome film.

  3. SteveW12:19 PM

    Great review! I particularly liked your analysis of the "twisted genius" of Heston mouthing the words of the hippies in WOODSTOCK, and your comments on casting a right-wing icon like him in these leftist dystopian fantasies.

    But your comparison with Clooney doesn't quite work, and for me only highlights the fact that there was a real slippery tension in Heston's persona that you don't see in modern movie stars. Guys like Clooney, Depp, and Will Smith are better actors, but they just don't have that kind of identifiable iconic, quasi-political, "star" persona that Kael and you describe. The casting of Heston brought something to pictures like APES and OMEGA MAN that no one could replicate today. And the thing is, he was a smart, self-aware guy (at least, before he descended into NRA crankery). He selected Orson Welles for TOUCH OF EVIL and defended him over the studio objections, and he knew full well what he was doing (i.e., how to use his persona) in a picture like APES. There was an aspect of knowing, ironic "put-on" to his manliness that somehow didn't diminish the manliness at all (Sean Connery had it too).

    Heston was kind of a "last man" as an actor too--they don't build that Hollywood type anymore. And he knew it and played with it.

  4. Two thumbs way up! A terrific retrospective on a sci-fi classic! I love HEston and I loved this film. This and POTA are my two hawkish favorites of the man.

    A great write-up!

    I didn't realize that creepy character was ANthony Zerbe [Dead Zone]. Very good performance!

    If I'm ever stuck in a post-apocalyptic place like this one I'll take Heston over Smith any day! Heston was the man. HE was kind of like Ed Straker, a real bad ass and completely unaffected, in more ways than one.

    I have heard that many times about The Omega Man, but it is my favorite of the three. I love it.

    The cheesy effects of that Will SMith outing really kill an otherwise decent film.

    Heston is the antidote for wiping out the radical left outfit called The Family, who want you to live according to their elite rules. Heston will have no part of it. Brilliant. :)

    It's interesting, both The Omega Man and I Am Legend share one thing in common. The first portion of each film is the strongest. We certainly connect, as human beings, to the sci-fi presentation of isolation and loneliness and the fear of that kind of reality. Those elements really connect with us on a visual and emotional level. We are engrossed.

    I felt the same way about little technological WALL-E. The first portion of that film was the best with WALL-E alone on the planet. Castaway is a brilliant film because of man against nature alone in isolation.

    We conenct to Hanks' desire to speak with a basketball or Heston and his dummy or Wall-E and his cockroach. No one wants to be alone. "All of those empty forms and shapes" symbolize Heston's desire for a connection to the living. And I loved your point about yearning for "messy" humanity, though I'm not sure I could stomach Rachel Maddow or Keith Olberman. I'd have to go it alone with a dummy : ) same thing.

    I loved your focus on the cliched language and their new meanings in the film. Great point!

    I agree too John that the ending is simply perfect. I loved it and all of your analysis in those final paragraphs were terrific.

    I think you have a book in the making my friend.

    Dystopian and Post-Apocalyptic Futures by JKM.

    All the best.

  5. I understand SteveW's points, but Clooney is most definitely a representative of the liberal arm of Hollywood. He's the anti-thesis of Heston. Again, I'd rather have Heston at my back.

    Granted, Clooney isn't the loon Sean Penn or Jeneane Garafolo are when it comes to his politics. In keeping with SteveW's points [I think], even these actors don't always practice what they preach when it comes to performance. Anyway, I enjoyed all of the comments too.

    Good conversation.

  6. SteveW2:21 PM

    Clooney is a liberal, but I don't see him as the antithesis of Heston because his liberalism doesn't infuse his on-screen persona the way Heston's right-wing politics seemed to infuse his chiseled-from-granite acting style. Penn and Clooney play all kinds of types, but Heston pretty much played the Heston type, and his politics were a part of that type.

    Modern actors generally try to avoid that kind of bleed-through between their roles and their off-screen politics. Sean Penn plays Huey Long AND Harvey Milk. Probably a "liberal" counterpart to Heston's on-screen persona would be someone like '70s-era Elliott Gould or Peter Fonda.

  7. I understand and I sort of relent a bit at the end of my comment by agreeing that Clooney doesn't necessarily "preach" his political views in his "performace."

    So I do see your point. What is surprising is just how public these actors are with their politics. It may be nothing new ultimately, but Penn, Garafolo, O'Donnell, Sheen and many others from Russell Brand to you name them are extreme in their views as far as their public personas go.

    As a kid, I never picked up on the conservative politcal angle engaged by Heston, but I do believe both you and John do articulate the point well.

    With the engagement of the internet and the 24 hour news cycle these stars and their stances are far more exposed then the stars of the 70s and in many ways its hard to separate their beliefs from who they are because of that intensive coverage.

    But again, enjoyed your points Steve as always. Regards- SFF

  8. Excellent post, John! While THE OMEGA MAN might be the least faithful to Matheson's I AM LEGEND novel, I think it is the most iconic (specifically, because of Charlton Heston). I don't know if we'll even see a really faithful adaptation to that seminal novel, ever. Nevertheless, I can watch the first two adaptations over and over again (while I like Will Smith, the third version is not something I'll revisit anytime soon). My favorite parts of TOM are its beginning and ending (that and the late Rosalind Cash). The finale has a wonderful Christ-like touch, if there ever was one, and fitting considering Heston's involvement in such well known religious epics like THE TEN COMMANDMENTS, BEN-HUR, including his John the Baptist part in THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD).

    That TOM occurred during that particular decade is another highlight. You make wonderful points regarding its Left/Right context, especially looking back from this point in time. Heston's political turn may have begun during The Me Decade, but they really manifested during the 80s & 90s. Still, his career renaissance seems to have begun with his pivotal George Taylor role in PLANET OF THE APES, with the resulting surge carrying him all the way through the 70s with some unforgettable characters. You can argue there were better actors around, but there were only a handful of true Stars. He was definitely of the latter -- a kind Hollywood doesn't make anymore. This was one fine piece of writing, with equal quality conversation. Thanks for this.

  9. Scott M8:21 AM

    I'm always happy to see lesser respected films and shows given positive spins. The Omega Man is a lot of fun and carries a boatload of apt symbolism. Like most good sci-fi, it says a lot. It also has a ton of quotable dialog, some hilariously bad. "Okay baby…hitch up your drawers!"

    The only real negative aspect of the ending for me is the use of the upbeat music over the lingering fade over Neville's corpse.

    “I think we wanted the downbeat ending and the distributor insisted on the other one,” (producer) Walter Seltzer recalls. “Playing that upbeat music over a man who’s basically being crucified seemed a little weird to me, but then the whole picture was kind of weird, so I couldn’t complain. I know Heston and I wanted the downbeat end title.”

    Otherwise, Ron Grainer's score is an amazing piece of period scoring and luckily, we can all buy it.

  10. Fantastic comments in this thread! Very intriguing stuff...

    DLR: Thank you for the kind words about my review of The Omega Man, and my approach to the film. I agree with you that the mythological/religious ending would have worked better with Matheson's title, I am Legend. No doubt about that.

    For me, Heston remains a singular presence, much as you write. Perhaps not a very versatile actor, but a man who could play THIS role (Neville/Taylor) to perfection. Something about his view of the world, about his physical presence, about his swagger, really, really worked for these sci-fi films! I also acknowledge my much debated (in the comments) comparison to George Clooney isn't quite right. There is no clear Heston on the left, I think.

    David: Yes! An awesome film indeed!

    Hi SteveW: Thank you for your supportive words as well. I agree with you, Clooney doesn't quite work. We're in a different time today, with a different approach to acting. We don't necessarily get actors like Heston anymore. You're right that today's actors (liberal or conservative) tend to "vanish" into their characters more fully; rather than bring themselves -- larger than life -- into their roles. George Clooney was about as close as I coud come on the short term, but -- no offense to the guy -- he's pretty clearly not the larger-than-life type of a Heston or an Eastwood, I guess.

    Hi SFF: Thank you for your good comments too. I did pick Clooney by point of comparison, because I think he is as close as we have today to a "star" on the left side of the spectrum, but I do acknowledge the comparison probably isn't that good. I probably should have left it out, but I thought it helped to explain the importance and value of Heston mouthing the counter-culture masterpiece Woodstock. It may have been too far off...

    More to come!


  11. Hi Le0pard13: I couldn't agree with you more with your excellent comment. I may not exactly be on Heston's side in terms of politics (Yes, I am a liberal...but Teddy Roosevelt is my favorite President...) but he is a star, and he has that star quality. I'm drawn to his magnetism and authority; his humor, his caustic line readings. I love the guy. Can't help myself. He's a powerhouse in films like Planet of the Apes and the Omega Man, and sometimes when you look at modern science fiction films, the protagonist comes off as dull, or vanilla. Heston was never either. He gives the actors (and the directors) something to push back against in a powerful way, and presents really colorful, human characters. I wish more than anything I could have interviewed the guy just once.

    Hi Scott M: Thanks for your great comment, and for bringing attention again to Granier's score. I can't argue with you about the ending composition. Something downbeat might have felt more appropriate; or maybe just something grander, with a solemn sense of uplift, or hope. I don't know exactly, but this is one moment in the film that really needs the right music to bring it off. (A similar crucifixion pose -- Alien 3 -- had an amazing score to go with Ripley's demise).

    Thank you all for so many wonderful comments!


  12. Anonymous3:38 PM

    “And the scene in the movie theater, with Neville lip-synching the words to hippie dialogue in Woodstock (1970) is some kind of twisted genius. It gets to the tension inherent in casting right-wing Heston in a role such as this (or in the role of Taylor in Planet of the Apes).”

    Hey John,

    My understanding was that Heston was not right wing at this point, or at least the public would not have viewed him in this way. His affiliation with the Democratic Party, his support of Kennedy, and his active role in the forefront of civil rights movement probably placed him as an extreme lefty in many people’s eyes. It probably wasn’t until about the time that this movie came out, or shortly thereafter, that he began getting more conservative. – Maybe these four films transformed him in some way. What do you think? -rc

  13. SteveW11:20 AM

    Anonymous and DLR make good points about Heston's actual politics at the time, and I was a little too cavalier in pegging him as "right-wing." I do think the image he projected on-screen was one of manly American triumphalism, as opposed to bleeding heart liberalism. But his actual politics (at least in the '60s) were another matter. Still, the on-screen image he projected certainly was certainly and hilariously at odds with that of the Woodstock hippies, which led to that nutty and oddly poignant scene.

  14. Excellent analysis as always, John. The effective dichotomy of the left-wing/right-wing tension had never struck me that clearly before, and you're quite right that the best parts of the film are the early sequences that come closest to capturing the feel of the novel, although you make some good points about the ending and the Jesus parallels. The latter are clearly there in the script, however much screenwriters John and Joyce Corrington may have felt that Heston overplayed it. And of course DLR et al. are right that Heston was not always---or merely---a right-wing icon. I think the upbeat music at the end (which I admit has thrown me on occasion) can be somewhat justified because, if you follow through on the Christ parallel, then they are spreading the "good news" about mankind's "redemption" through Neville's blood. I don't necessarily prefer it, although I am a big Grainer fan, but it's not inconsistent thematically, if you'll pardon the pun.

  15. More great comments on The Omega Man, from all!

    RC: You may be right about Charlton Heston; and how the perception of him as changed post-1980. But his presence -- regardless of stance -- adds much to these science fiction classics. He is a singular presence.

    SteveW: I don't think you were too cavalier, my friend. I also termed Charlton Heston right-wing. That's definitely his latter-day image, and I think many also saw him this way in the earlier era as well, hence Pauline Kael's description of him; I suspect.

    Matthew: You are absolutely right about the upbeat music and how it plays. It could be interpreted, thematially as "spreading the good news," just as you note. A brilliant way of reading that choice, which seems a little off-kilter.

    Thank you all!


  16. Great review and please read mine! Love to compare notes!