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Thursday, August 30, 2012

The Omega Man

A fitting followup to the third "Apes" film (which also played in the summer of '71) is Warner Brothers' The Omega Man (OM), released in August of '71. Charlton Heston launched the Apes franchise in 1968 and acted in the first two. In OM, he plays Robert Neville, the last "normal" man on a post-apocalyptic earth. The film is the second adaptation of Richard Matheson's 1954 novel, "I Am Legend." It is also a remake of the first adaptation, The Last Man on Earth ('64) which starred Vincent Price.
Of course, "Omega" is the last greek letter in their alphabet, so the Omega Man is the Last Man (too). OM is a very 70s film, so has some archival value there too.

Quick Plot Synopsis
Robert Neville drives alone through an empty Los Angeles. He as the whole town to himself, or maybe not. At the sight of a shadowy shape in a building, he stops to spray the windows with machine gun fire. Dry dead bodies occasionally litter the city. He tarries too long in the city. Dusk falls. Albino mutants in monks' robes attack him as he tries to get in his garage. He kills three of them. He fires up his generator. The floodlights drive the mutants away. He's safe, but so tormentedly alone. Through various flashbacks, we learn that biological weapons were used in a Sino-Russian war. This spawned a world-wide plague which killed most people in minutes, but some victims mutated into psychotic light-sensitive albinos. Their leader is a former news anchor named Matthias, convinced that evil modern civilization brought the judgement upon mankind. Neville was a military scientist working on a cure for the plague. In desperation, he injects himself with one of the serums. It works. He's immune. Matthias's mutants want to kill Neville as symbolic of old world of bombs and machines. Neville wants to either kill the albinos, or find a cure -- he's not clear which. While foraging one day, he stumbles across Lisa, another normal person. She eludes him. Later, Neville is captured by the mutants. Lisa and Dutch rescue him. Neville finds out there are other normal people hiding up in the hills. They're infected and eventually "turn." Lisa's brother Richie is turning. Neville tries to help Richie by giving him a transfusion of his blood. Through various adventures, Neville and Lisa find romance. Richie gets better, but disagrees with Neville's goal of killing the mutants. Richie goes to Matthias' headquarters to broker peace and promise the cure that worked on him. The mutants kill Richie and bait in Neville. After much shooting, Neville makes it back to his apartment, only to find out that Lisa has "turned" and let in Matthias and his goons. They trash the place. Neville escapes to the yard with Lisa, but he's speared by Matthias. Neville shoots Matthias dead. Dutch comes in the morning with a truckload of singing kids. The dying Neville gives Dutch the pint of his savior blood, then dies in a crucifix-like pose. Dutch takes Lisa and the kids to some unspecified safe haven. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
OM is great as another iteration of Matheson's powerful story. It is infused with much early 70s culture. 8-track tapes! This does date the film, but is also fun as a 70s time capsule. Note the swinging' bachelor pad notion, so popular in the 70s. Heston is commanding in his portrayal of the "last man," as tragic hero. It's somehow comforting to imagine mankind's "last" being so full of resourcefulness and fight.

Cold War Angle
Fears of the end of civilization found voice in post-apocalyptic stories. There had been many since the early 50s and the start of the Cold War. Having the plague come as "fallout" from a superpower war was an easy sell to Cold War audiences.

Compared to the Book -- The original source material for OM was Richard Matheson's 1954 novella, "I Am Legend." His story had a global bio-plague which may have come from a war somewhere. "They" are called vampires, but also a sort of new mankind. Ruth is their bait for a trap. Neville is captured and sentenced to die as a monstrous serial killer of the new humanity. He was legendary. OM kept the bio-warfare cause, but the mutants aren't so much a new mankind as a temporary throwback to medievalism which would be temporary at best. The mutants eventually die of the plague, so why was Neville in such a hurry to kill them? The book is somewhat depressing, in that Neville is the last one of "us" and he's doomed. In OM, a Land Rover full of singing kids, Dutch, and Lisa, drive off to supposed safety to rebuild the "old" mankind.

Compared to the First Movie -- LMOE screenplay (said to have been partially written by Matheson) was already a departure from the novel, even though it also kept many key story features. The Corrington's remake built upon some of the 1964 features. "They" aren't zombies which rise from the dead, as in the '64 film. Once shot, they stay dead. The Corrington's have Lisa instead of Ruth, as a mildly infected "normal" woman, but not a trap. Though she does let Matthias into Neville's house once she's "turned." The '64 version had the ill-fated dog, like the novel. OM had no dog. (The 2007 version would put back in the dog.) OM has the hero speared and killed by Them like LMOE had. The religious undertones are there too. The "cure" is much more understated in LMOE, as Ruth's blood carries the hero's immunity, but little is made of that. Much is made of this in OM. The '71 movie has much more of a Rambo-like swagger to it too. OM's Neville wields machine guns, where LMOE's Morgan wielded wooden stakes.

Racial Mix -- The writers build in an interesting irony into OM. While Matthias bombasts about how his albinos represent the "enlightened" future of mankind, it is the afro-zombie Zachary who cannot let go of the old-world prejudices. Yet, it is Neville, the whitest of white guys, and Lisa, the afro-soul-sister, who set aside the old racism and find love. Inter-racial "love" was still a gasp-inducing topic in the early 70s. Having a token black on a starship crew was all good political correctness, but in the end, black women were supposed to pair up with black men -- not mix with the white guys.

Neo-Luddites -- Screenwriters John and Joyce Corrington rewrote Matheson's vampires and William Leicester's 1964 zombies. The Corringtons used their albino semi-zombies as surrogates for that faction of 60s counter culture which railed against militarism, capitalism and industry. They burn books (the establishment knowledge), and vow not to use "the wheel" -- symbolic of industrial civilization. To leave no doubt, the Corringtons have Matthias' minions smash things in Neville's apartment. Art, technology, civilization, all smashed in proper Luddite zeal. The way these counter-culture zombies are written, one can see some of the motivation that would underly latter "hippy" activism and the "Back to the Land" movement of the 70s, seeking to escape the evils of industrial capitalism, etc., etc.

Savior Symbol -- Note the ending, where Neville takes on the symbolic role of Jesus. He is killed by those he came to save. He was pierced in his side with a spear. As Heston slumps in death, in the fountain, note how he holds his arms -- as if floating by far higher than buoyancy would cause -- so the camera can slow-zoom back to reveal a Christ-on-Cross pose, but without the cross. Perhaps more significant is that his blood is then the key to the salvation of mankind. Not all of mankind, in a universalist sort of mode, but only those, like Dutch, who accept his sacrifice. Those, like the family, who refuse the blood, are doomed to "outer darkness." Audiences of 1971, no doubt, got this. One wonders how many 21st century viewers, in an age in which atheism is so fashionable, would get it.

Sequel Worthy -- Some 50s themes were just too powerful to leave in a single movie. Matheson's post-apocalyptic "last man" is clearly one of them. Vincent Price starred as the first on-screen last man (first last man?) in 1964. Heston plays Neville in '71. The Millennial Generation would get their own version via Will Smith as Neville in 2007. Each film would build upon the earlier ones, though drifting further from Matheson's darker tale with each remake.

Bottom line? OM isn't as "timeless" as some sci-fi classics, but it definitely is one. It is a worthy remake of the story and (if one can get over modernist revulsion for things "out" of fashion) a pretty well told story. OM is one of the 70s' hallmark sci-fi. It's worth watching on its own, but perhaps as part of a a triple feature of the "Last Man" movies. Compare and contrast…


Randall Landers said...

I think that the thing that struck me as a youth seeing this movie was the sudden exhibition of nudity. LOL While tame by today's comparison, it was quite a shock to see Rosalind Cash topless. Not that I minded, but my parents were mortified; not because Lisa was black, but because they'd taken their 10-year-old son to a GP movie and suddenly there was nudity!

Interesting that you compared this version of Matheson's novel to the 1964 version with a brief nod to the 2007 version. There's also I AM OMEGA starring Iron Chef American Chairman Mark Dacascos in the Heston/Price/Smith role. Be sure and see how far off the mark a novel adaptation can truly go.

Nightowl said...

Hey Randall,
I forgot about the nudity too, since my previous memory of the movie had been a TV version. Like a lot of swearing, nudity and violence working its way into cinema in the 70s, it did nothing to advance the story. It was just gratuitous pandering.

Thanks for the tip on I AM OMEGA. I'll have to look that one up, just to complete the collection. :-)