Retro Review: THE OMEGA MAN

The Omega Man (1971) is an adaption of the book I Am Legend by Richard Matheson. It appropriately stars the legendary Charlton Heston. The Omega Man is a great title. Can the movie live up to it? Let’s find out…

Gratuitously Long Personal Anecdote

Obtaining Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend became something of a quest for me in my formative years. I read about the book in Stephen King’s Danse Macabre and labeled it a must-read.

I checked to see if I Am Legend was on the shelves every time I went to the library. Nope.

I checked to see if bookstores had a copy of I Am Legend every time I visited one. Nope. I’d then ask the clerk if they could order it. Nope.

Eventually, the local librarian located a copy and arranged an inter-library loan. I finally held a copy of I Am Legend in my grubby hands after more than a year of searching. It was the edition with a cover that looked like it was drawn by a ninth grader in study hall.

Omega Man

I read it and was not disappointed. As soon as I hit the last page, I turned back to the first page and started all over. Since I had to return it, I meant to get all I could out of it.

Somewhere along the line, I learned movie versions of I Am Legend existed. The Last Man On Earth starred Vincent Price and came out in 1964. TBS was scheduled to show it one night at 1 a.m. I set my alarm, got up and watched it. It had some good, and some bad, about it.

Then I learned about The Omega Man starring Charlton Heston. That sounded much more promising. That finally appeared on the TV schedule one day at 11 a.m., also on TBS. I managed to cajole my Pa into letting me stop working when it started and profusely promised to make up for the time lost when it was over. Was it worth it? Read on to find out…

When Austin Powers is pushed too far…

The Omega Man

The 1970s were a high-water mark in film. Classic movie after classic movie came out as a new wave of directors like Lucas and Spielberg took the world by storm: Jaws, Star Wars, The Godfather, The French Connection, Halloween, Rocky, and many more.

Then you had a subgroup of 1970s films that didn’t light it up at the box office but were still great: Sorcerer, Eraserhead, Burnt Offerings, The Shout, The Man Who Would Be King, Race With the Devil, and many, many, many more.

One tends to forget that the 1970s had another category of film – movies that are so 1970s you can taste flower-print bellbottoms being shoved down your throat until your ears ring with the sound of David Cassidy bellowing “Hey, I Think I Love You!” and Marcia Brady tap dances on your back in a pair of open-toe slings while Jimmie Walker dips a stick of !DY-NO-MITE! into your fondue pot.

Metaphorically, of course.

The Omega Man is that kind of 1970s film.

If this shot was anymore 1970s, Wayland Flowers and Madame would materialize in it.

The Omega Crew

Boris Sagal directed The Omega Man. He did not have a long career. Did his opportunities dry up? Did he age out? No, he walked into the tail rotor of a helicopter while working on the NBC miniseries World War III, starring David Soul.

Oh man, I actually remember that miniseries! Does anyone else? Mostly, I remember US arctic troops being low on ammunition, so Soul arranged them inside metal pipes. This limited their field of fire to prevent them from wasting bullets. They could only shoot at the Russians that passed in front of their target area.

The Omega Man had two screenwriters, who doubled as a married couple: John and Joyce Corrington (Battle for the Planet of the Apes and The Killer Bees). John had a doctorate in chemistry, which led him to make biological warfare the cause of the mutants in The Omega Man.

Anthony Zerbe joins Heston as the leader of the mutants. As Black Sunday is, perhaps, Bruce Derns’s most Derns-y performance, The Omega Man is maybe Zerbe’s most Zerbe-y performance.

Rosalind Cash stars as Heston’s love interest. For years, I thought it was Gloria Hendry in this role. My bad. Cue the woke shouts: they all look the same to you, don’t they, Wrenage!

In this case, yes. The Omega Man Rosalind Cash and Live And Let Die Gloria Hendry look alike to me.

A couple other players also deserve mention. Outposters will recognize Paul Kolso from Robot Jox as a survivor who dresses like Billy Jack. Eric Laneuville portrays a sick boy who is perhaps suffering from getting hit by a sack of flour. Laneuville went on to appear in Death Wish before directing TV shows like Quantum Leap. Finally, Lincoln Kilpatrick (Soylent Green) serves as Zerbe’s henchman.

This apocalypse isn’t so bad. Minneapolis 2020 looked a lot worse.

The Alpha Man

The Omega Man starts off strong. Heston tools around the deserted streets of Los Angeles, which looks suitably apocalyptic. Trash litters the streets. The interiors are dusty and in shambles. Desiccated corpses lay here and there in the streets. All of this was accomplished by filming on early Sunday mornings in the LA business district.

The Omega Man has a fun looter’s-dream aspect to it. For example, when Heston crashes his car, he simply walks into a dealership and drives a new car out through the show window.

Despite this solid setup, things rapidly go off the rails with The Omega Man. The first clue that something is amiss is the music. Ron Grainer did the score. In lieu of a more traditional soundtrack, Grainer decided to go modern, which is to say, full 1970s.

The Omega Man score is poppy, overly-bright, and undermines nearly every image onscreen. The score belongs to something like the 1970s Amazing Spider-Man TV show. It does not work for a serious horror, science fiction mashup.

One glass of milk infected with smallpox coming up…

The Beta Men

The mutants themselves are the next problem. They are not vampire-like, as they were in the original novel. Film adaptions of I Am Legend are afraid to go this route for some reason. This is unfortunate. The vampire angle gives the book a solid supernatural foundation to build from until it takes a satisfying turn into a more scientific, social commentary.

The mutants in The Omega Man are fully human. They have all of their facilities about them. They simply chose to become Luddites and cosplay Edgar Winter after getting sick.

This destroys the entire “last man on earth” angle of the story. The engine that drives the book is Neville’s isolation and loneliness in being the last of his kind. When the vampires gather on his lawn every night and mindlessly shout, “Come out, Neville!”, a large part of him wants to go because nowhere else to go exists for him in his solitary state of being.

The Corringtons introduce some sort of noble-savage theme to replace that. The mutants shun technology and want to go back to basics. They view technology as the cause of the world’s demise and Neville as the last representative of a technological world.

It sounds good on paper, but it gets tedious watching Zerbe monotone-monologue his way through this exposition onscreen. The problem is amplified by how unappealing Zerbe and the rest of the film look. Pretty much every shot in The Omega Man is ugly.

Lighting is bland. Set design is cluttered. Costumes are second-rate. Makeup and hair are gross. All of the characters look like they need a bath. Camera setups seem haphazard.

Ugly can be done in film. Sorcerer was mentioned earlier. Roy Schieder and company go through that movie filthy and in trash locations. Yet, Fredkin had the eye to make it work onscreen. Sagal does not display that ability. One feels like they should bleach themselves after watching The Omega Man.

I ain’t Gloria Hendry, you jive turkey! I’m Rosalind Cash, you jive turkey!

The Lambda Lambda Lambda Man

Performances are hit-and-miss in The Omega Man. Heston is decent when roaming around the city, playing chess with a bust of Caesar and machine-gunning mutants. One gets the sense he is a tough, resourceful man, who is approaching his breaking point.

If the screenplay had let Heston run with this thread, it could be great fun. Unfortunately, the creators rapidly discard the last-man-on-earth aspect in favor of saddling Heston with co-stars he has el-zippo chemistry with. One can see Heston trying, but nothing exists for him to hook into.

Rosalind Cash feels like every one of her lines should end with, “jive turkey.” Corrington said Cash’s character was created due to the rise of the Black Power Movement. It shows. She does not seem to be written as a real human being. All the character really wants to do is go shopping. Shopping is how she is introduced. Shopping leads to her downfall. She is not a survivor. She is a consumer.

Plus, in a case of a modern lens lending an awkward perspective to the situation, the only power the character displays is looting.

Nevertheless, The Omega Man caused something of a stir in its day by featuring an interracial relationship between Heston and Cash. You can’t win really. Some people will always find something offensive. I’m not sure I would even call what Heston and Cash have in The Omega Man a relationship. It is something more akin to a little girl mashing the faces of her Ken and Barbie dolls together.

At the end of the day, the screenplay is probably the greatest problem with The Omega Man. The story becomes more and more scatterbrained as the movie moves along.

Is it Heston’s story? Zerbe’s story? Cash’s story? Before we figure any of that out, Heston turns into Dr. Kildare trying to save a sick kid. The Omega Man branches off yet again as the sick kid then tries to save the mutants. The narrative weaves all over the place.

Maybe that little girl mashing the faces of her Ken and Barbie dolls together also contributed to the screenplay.

“Take your dress off” is not passion speaking in this case. It is self-defense for one’s eyeballs. That dress is hideous!

Beyond The Omega Man

The Omega Man would not be Hollywood’s last dalliance with I Am Legend. Ridley Scott and Arnold Schwarzenegger circled the project in the late 1990s. When I saw this news in the “In Development” section of Cinescape Magazine, I was over the moon. Disappointment followed when it fell apart.

The screenplay is available for those who seek it. It has some interesting things about it, but, again, it strays too far from riding the supernatural aspect of the original novel for at least a portion of the film. Plus, it doesn’t fully exploit Neville’s isolation. Makeup tests are also available on YouTube.

If Schwarzenegger had done I Am Legend with Ridley Scott and Crusades with Paul Verhoeven, it would have propelled him into yet another stratosphere of superstardom. He would have ruled Hollywood from Valhalla. But, hey, we got The Sixth Day and Collateral Damage.

That’s almost as good, right?

Cue weeping.

Eventually, a modern I Am Legend happened in 2007, starring Will Smith. It is a frustrating film. For everything it does right, it does something wrong. Probably the biggest sin is that Will Smith doesn’t fight mutants. He fights cartoons. The CGI monsters are quite wonky. Who Framed Roger Rabbit offers more realism in its animated characters.

The Omega

The Omega Man should be a classic. It has great source material. It has Heston in a genre he’s normally great in (see Planet of the Apes and Soylent Green). Yet, it is a misfire on most levels. By the time the on-the-nose Messiah ending rolled around, I was seeking my own deliverance. The best thing that can be said about The Omega Man is that it has a degree of campiness that some might appreciate.

Let’s listen to Edgar Winter…

Stars 2

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