The last man on earth discovers that he is not. Now he’s fighting for his life!
The Omega Man is an action oriented sci-fi film, with lots of star power but little to say. It follows in the footsteps of other survival-type films but adds no originality to the genre.
The trailer has Charlton Heston driving through a deserted city and imagining that he hears the sound of ringing phones. The titles say he’s “The Omega Man” and “the Last Man on Earth,” which is the name of the previous version of this film. Except of course, that he’s not alone. He encounters another group of survivors, and they fight off some mutant characters in dark hoods that are afraid of lights. The film appears to have a number of action sequences including a motorcycle chase, firmly entrenching this in the action genre of sci-fi films.
Presented below is the trailer for the film.
The Fiction of The Film
In Los Angeles, two years after a plague has wiped out humanity, Colonel Robert Neville, MD (Charlton Heston), drives his souped up car through the deserted city streets, firing his machine gun at shadows in buildings. He does what he wants, like watching the film version of Woodstock in the local cinema, and taking a new car from a dealership when he accidentally wrecks his old one. But it turns out he’s not as alone as it first seems. Upon returning home some albino mutants attack his car with fire, but he manages to kill them all before getting into his fortress.
In the night, these creatures who call themselves the “Family” gather and taunt him to come out of his secured apartment. They are a cult of mutated survivors of a plague that wiped out society, and now want to destroy Neville who is their representation of science, technology and the problems of “the old world.” Neville ignores them and remembers his work on a cure, and the helicopter crash that nearly killed him. The plague infected him but one of his vaccine samples saved his life and he became immune to the plague.
One day while out scrounging for new clothes Neville spots a black woman in a department store who appears to be uninfected. He chases after her but she loses him the maze of buildings and alleys. Later while he is investigating a wine cellar, several Family members jump him and drag to their “nest,” as Neville calls it, for a trial. The leader of the family, previously a news anchor named Matthias (Anthony Zerbe), runs a quick kangaroo court, finding Neville guilty of murder of any number of the Family–a veritable angel of death. He is taken to a large stadium, and strung up to be crucified and burned at the stake. The woman whom he saw previously, Lisa (Rosalind Cash), rescue him along with her male friend, Dutch (Paul Koslo), and three escape on motorcycles in a grand series of stunts.
Lisa takes him to an enclave of other survivors, mostly young children that haven’t been infected yet. Apparently as they get older the disease becomes more aggressive. Lisa explains that they have been laying low to avoid being killed by Neville in his one-man attack on anything that moves. When she realizes that Neville is immune, she asks if there’s anything he can do for her younger brother Richie (Eric Laneuville), who has started to turn. He agrees and they return to his fortified apartment in the city where his supplies are. At this time, Brother Zachary (Lincoln Kilpatrick), Matthias’ right-hand man, makes a move to kill Neville, but is instead killed himself.
Over the next few days, Neville uses his blood as a serum to cure Richie, and both he and Lisa grow closer, eventually becoming intimate. Dutch is ecstatic that a cure has been found, and starts packing up their camp and making plans with Lisa and Neville to start a new society in the hills; a “Garden of Eden” without inviting a snake! Richie is thankful for the help but wants Neville to offer the cure to the Family–to make things like they used to be. Neville would sooner die than do that!
Richie sets off to make an offer to the Family that they can be cured, but Matthias thinks that it is a trick proposed by Neville into killing them all and kills Richie instead. Neville returns to his apartment to find the Family waiting for him, along with an albino Lisa, who has turned while foraging for supplies. She now thinks and acts like one of the family. Neville grabs her and escapes the apartment, with minutes until sunrise. As he is trying to get her through the park outside his building Matthias throws a spear that penetrates his chest, and Neville falls into the fountain dying. Shortly after sunrise Dutch and the other kids find him. Neville gives Dutch the serum he was able to save and tells them to take Lisa, before he dies–arms outstretched in a crucifixion pose.
“You see, none of it was real. It was illusion. Your art, your science, it was all a nightmare. And now it’s done. Finished. He was the last of those who brought the punishment to us. We have cleansed and purged his world. Now we must build.” – Matthias
History in the Making
It has been 7 years since the first adaptation of Richard Mattheson’s novel “I Am Legend” was first put to the screen in The Last Man on Earth. As such, The Omega Man, stylized as The Ωmega Man in the opening credits, is the first remake I’ll be looking at on Sci-Fi Saturdays. Remakes were nothing new in cinema by the early 70s. Sci-fi films were just not a mature enough genre to necessitate filmmakers revisiting older stories to retell or remake them. Of course, today remakes, reboots, reimaginings are everywhere. The same source material is mined several ways nowadays, always looking for a fresh take.
Unfortunately, what makes The Last Man on Earth, and Mattheson’s original story, compelling becomes diluted by director Boris Sagal’s focus on action. Scoring Charlton Heston as the lead in the film brings certain ideas and expectations to the film. An imposing, manly actor, with a squared-jaw and distinctive speaking rhythm, Heston was a strong, brave, and righteous figure that was already well-known for other roles. Best remembered as either Ben-Hur, Moses, or astronaut Taylor from Planet of the Apes, Heston brought all of this background to his role as the last man on earth.
The Omega Man goes to great lengths to setup Heston as the last man on Earth. This includes shooting in a deserted downtown Los Angeles at times when they could control traffic and have no other body on the streets (it was easier in 1971 to do this than today). But quickly it’s shown that he’s really not the last man, as there are dozens of mutants (the Family) roaming around, and then at least one more enclave of humans hiding out in the hills. One of the more enjoyable aspects of the original Vincent Price version was the feeling of isolation and sadness that Neville had to live with.
It did take a different tact with the Family being more of a threat than the vampiric-zombies from the 1964 version. Having a leader that can talk, and think–however irrationally–makes them seem more of a danger to Neville and his way of life. The Omega Man sets them into a different category by making them seem crazy about wanting to tear down Neville as the last bastion of the old world. The cultish ravings of Matthias set them as outcasts, and build up Neville as a more heroic character, rather than the 1964 version where very little is known about the mutants until the end of the film, when it is revealed to the audience that they are alive, just differently, and that Neville is seen as a demon to them, killing them without mercy.
The twist of The Last Man On Earth, and of Mattheson’s original story, is that the protagonist the audience follows, the one that they think is protecting himself from the mutated hordes of brainless, reanimated creatures, is in fact the antagonist of the story–at least from the standpoint of the mutants. It’s a chilling realization that the character the audience roots for may not be as righteous as originally seen, and that the preconceptions that people hold need to be re-evaluated. The Omega Man ignores this entirely.
Instead of creating any ambiguity with the hero of the film, Heston is downright presented as a modern-day Jesus Christ. In fact the comparisons are not subtle. When Lisa first rescues Neville at the stadium, she tells him to “spread his arms like he was crucified,” so she can search him for weapons. He is depicted as the saviour of humanity, who can use his blood to cure the albinism and mutations. He is killed with a spear, and when he dies in the fountain, his arms splay out sideways, and his legs overlap and turn, creating an image of the iconic pose of Christ crucified on the cross. The Family is a stand-in for the Romans, coming to kill Neville for attempting to change their world. Again, not subtle.
But this change, either designed into the screenplay originally or due to Heston being cast, really changes the tone of the film. It creates a story in which the filmmakers are saying, society is great and we should totally bring back the people that destroyed the world. The more pessimistic ending for The Last Man On Earth seems like it is something that would have fit well in an early 70s setting, given the dour and downbeat endings of other recent sci-fi films, like The Andromeda Strain and THX 1138. Unfortunately the ending seems like society will be fine, with Neville’s sacrifice being one that will enable the human race to live.
The Science in The Fiction
The movie lays out a little history of the coming of the outbreak that put civilization into the place it is at the start of the film. China and Russia had a war that started in the mid-70s (the film takes place in August of 1977) that used germ warfare. The disease mutated and spread around the globe to North America, and Neville was one of the military scientists working on the vaccine. Outside of this small amount of backstory, the authenticity of medical and scientific plot elements is vague. Heston is seen studying test tubes and examining blood samples with no eye towards any realism. But this sort of portrayal was common place at the time. There was no expectation by audiences to have a film be “real.” Realistic films like The Andromeda Strain were more of the exception than the rule.
The Final Frontier
The Omega Man would be the last filmed version of Mattheson’s story until 2007, with the Will Smith film I Am Legend. Other than being one of Charlton Heston’s late 60s/early 70s sci-fi films, there’s not a lot that this film offers. It does feature an early interracial kiss between Heston and Cash. It was not the first one, but came at a time of great social upheaval between the women’s lib movement and strides in Civil Rights. It’s not even the first interracial kiss for genre films, which dates back to an episode of Star Trek in 1968 called “Plato’s Stepchildren.”
As a star vehicle, The Omega Man is an interesting enough role for Charlton Heston. Not as good as his role in The Planet of the Apes, or Soylent Green, but different enough. The film is adequate but it’s loss of the original ending of the story weighs heavily on it, opting for more of an action film, than a message piece. Stay tuned for more great 70s sci-fi film from Sci-Fi Saturdays, including the aforementioned Soylent Green and Silent Running!
Having grown up on comics, television and film, “Jovial” Jay feels destined to host podcasts and write blogs related to the union of these nerdy pursuits. Among his other pursuits he administrates and edits stories at the two largest Star Wars fan sites on the ‘net (Rebelscum.com, TheForce.net), and co-hosts the Jedi Journals podcast over at the ForceCast network.