“Definition of a scientist – a man who understands nothing until there was nothing left to understand.”
Richard Matheson’s excellent 1954 horror novel I Am Legend is the source of inspiration for this, though it could barely be described as an adaptation. The Omega Man takes Matheson’s scenario – the last man on Earth, living in a city surrounded by the former humans who have succumbed to some sort of disease – and reinvents it; gone are the vampire creatures the author pitted against his protagonist, replaced by sunglasses-wearing albinos who desire to accept their “punishment” and return to less technologically based times.
This is just one of a number of adaptations, and the least faithful; in 1964 Vincent Price became a vampire hunter in The Last Man on Earth, while Will Smith battled the sunlight-hating beasts in 2007’s I Am Legend. The latter in particular, while undoubtedly flawed when dark fell, excelled in capturing the desperate isolation suffered by the lone man. For much of the film, Smith is – with the exception of his dog – the only person on screen, talking to himself and slowly going mad in his basic need for human contact. In contrast, The Omega Man‘s protagonist, Neville (Charlton Heston) shares his screen time frequently, either with members of the albino “family” determined to exterminate what they view as a threat to their way of life, or with the other humans he later encounters. Although the film opens with aerial shots of a desolate urban landscape, effectively evoking an uneasy atmosphere, these are soon abandoned and, as the film gets increasingly more crowded, it becomes less interesting.
Like the other adaptations, The Omega Man is not without its problems; primarily, ageing star Heston never successfully convinces of any emotion. Although he talks to himself, or to his mannequin flatmate, the lame quips and flat one-liners may be delivered with a healthy sense of irony but seem less the requirement of a man desperate for company, and more the self-appreciating words of someone who likes to listen to themselves. Later discovering other survivors, who have yet to succumb to the plague, again his reaction is more apathetic than relieved. While the supporting characters are less than inspiring – the medieval cloaks, flaming torches, and pseudo-religious rhetoric of the “family” is bland, while love interest Lisa (Rosalie Cash) is a walking cliché, from her giant afro to her 70’s slang – Heston’s performance alone would not be enough to carry the production.
There are some interesting concepts here, however. Neville’s isolation is self-imposed – refusing to leave the house he lived in before the apocalyptic consequences of global biological warfare (revealed through a montage of stock footage inserts) indicates his desire to find other humans is not enough to actually go and look for them. Meanwhile, his conflict with the “family” is a half-hearted one; he seems less intent on killing them than on being annoying. The motivations of the “family” also have unexpected connotations: as the majority, perhaps they, not Neville, are truly the future of humanity. As the film progresses, it becomes increasingly harder to empathise with him; stubborn, unemotional and egotistical, it is a solemn reminder that the last man on Earth doesn’t actually have to be a nice one.
The Omega Man is a good example of a studio film in a time when counter-culture and independent movies were marking themselves as a serious threat to the future of the industry. Two years earlier, Easy Rider had already provided its own nihilistic version of the American Dream; here, Warner Brothers cash in on the continuing disillusionment of a generation. Yet it lacks the rawness of the independent productions – after the early location shots, scenes look staged, action sequences feel controlled, and the hip, happenin’ jargon and costumes are stereotyped rather than authentic. Even more distracting is the score, which frequently sounds more as though it’s accompanying a 70’s cop movie, effectively annihilating any sense of tension.
Clearly, there are problems, and they are easily recognised, but The Omega Man far from a disaster. The early scenes are by far the best, and it is a shame some of the implied ideas are realised in too ham-handed a fashion. Today it is dated, but this adds a retro appeal further enhanced by the source novel’s continued appreciation and, along with Heston’s other flawed film, Planet of the Apes (1968), is remembered fondly despite some lapses in technique and judgement.