The Omega Man
directed by Boris Sagal
(Warner Brothers, 1971)

When I think about the top five movies that I clearly remember getting up early to watch on Sunday mornings (in pre-video recorder days), The Omega Man with Charlton Heston ranks firmly in the top three of those five.

Oh sure, years later I would learn all the reasons I was not supposed to like this movie. Such as guns are bad, m'kay, and not the answer (unless you're surrounded by crazed vampiric-like cult members, right?) or the fact it's a heavily altered version of the book "I am Legend," written by the amazing Richard Matheson (Incredible Shrinking Man, Outer Limits, Twilight Zone, Night Gallery and Kolchak, The Night Stalker). And let's not forget it was preceded by the low-budget Vincent Price film Last Man on Earth, based on the same book but much more faithful to it. To me these complaints are nitpicking art-house contrivances at sophistication. All I care about is that I like the damn film! In the '70s I was a kid and it had everything I liked. It still does, too, indelibly preserved in my mind and now on the miracle of DVD!

First off, there's Chuck, with a hit movie list a mile long by 1971. Omega Man falls into an odd time in Heston's career when he did a string of sci-fi films that make him more relevant to me than many of his great works. These 1970s gems are movies like Planet of the Apes, Soylent Green (required viewing) and naturally The Omega Man, and a nonsci-fi but amazingly played role as the cardinal in the best Three Musketeers movie ever. Not one back flip in the whole shebang, I swear.

This movie was made before special effects, monster budgets and short attention spans had gutted Hollywood of its zest for life. We have a city full of dead people, who died in a genocidal bacteriological war between two other enemy nations (there are some great campy low-budget moments where that's all wonderfully detailed). Neville (Heston) is an army general and scientist who has the only antidote to the plague bug that is about to wipe out humanity. He fails to deliver it to the authorities in time, but does manage to inject himself -- a failure that will haunt him the rest of his days. Jump ahead a few years and Neville is struggling stoically to survive in a city of the dead, the dying and the deadly "Family."

The Family are a cloak-wearing, night-crawling, plague-festering, light-sensitive cult of Luddites who want to burn all the old science books, buildings and anything from the age that brought on the fall of man via the plague. This includes Neville himself, and therein lies the main struggle and dramatic conflict of the movie. Luckily Neville negotiates with a submachine gun, judo chop and fire, which he sets on any Family member who gets too close to his swanky uptown fortress.

I would be remiss to not point out the movie is elegantly and seriously injected with social commentary and political undertones that fit perfectly with the time. These social undertones resonate to this moment. Neville meets a few other survivors who haven't been killed or transformed by the disease, and in them he rediscovers the meaning and purpose of why we're here, I won't say more, don't wanna ruin your fun.

I recall loving this movie with that special ardor that only a boy can have for a gun-toting hero who faces down evil and survives trial after trial. As a man, I appreciate the film's other aspects, which were missed by the boy I once was. Neville is a tragic hero; people die around him and for a long time he carries the weight and smell of death with him everywhere he goes. He wants to die for his sins, but only when his enemy is good enough to kill him. They aren't, and he won't lower his standards. When he finally finds a reason to live again he's willing to risk all for it, even in the shadow of constant loss. As a heroic character Neville is constant in this regard. He is a survivor and a man of action bent on humanity's preservation -- guilt drives him to take up the sword, love leads him to hope.

That I still love this damn '70s B-movie is a testament to how great comic-book style "camp" can be in a movie when it has star power.

The Omega Man is well worth your time to rent or own. It has a killer soundtrack by Ron Grainer (The Prisoner, Dr. Who) and, like many films in the early 1970s, it has the decency not to insult your intelligence while providing entertainment that nonetheless requires you to really, really suspend your functioning disbelief.

It has one other thing that many '70s films have as well: an ending you can live with, and one that will indeed make you think on and appreciate the role of dedication and sacrifice in any hero, no matter how flawed he may be.

by Jack Myers
22 October 2005

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