CINEMA TIME CAPSULE

THE OMEGA MAN TURNS 30 . . .
AND BOY CAN YOU TELL
By Daniel Kraus


Charlton Heston: Prime, grade-A hunk! A chest a mile wide! He looks even better toting that honey of a firearm. And what a brain on that guy–sharp as a whip! Not to mention that great set of choppers–have you seen those teeth? Yep, Charlton Heston is the greatest human being to ever live.

Judging by the kind of movies he was making in the late 60's/early 70's, this seemed to be the message Heston was putting out. In films such as Planet of the Apes (1968), Soylent Green (1973), and The Omega Man (1971), Heston played the only man who was strong enough, smart enough, and had enough moxie to do what normal Homo sapiens could never dream of. He was different than just your standard-issue action hero, though, because he was very conscious of his gifts, displaying them for kicks and talking down to others in a bored, sarcastic voice that practically screamed, "You stupid, stupid fool." Heston played his characters as if he were Zeus, surrounded by pitiful, frightened humans.

Heston was a new breed of hero that, surprisingly, caught on: pompous, arrogant, and boorish. Just the kind of guy who would end up being the last man on Earth, damn our luck.

Which is exactly what happens in the camp classic The Omega Man. Heston plays Neville, the titular last man on Earth. Through flashback, we discover that a world war with Russia led to a deployment of biological warfare that in turn created a plague. (This seems needlessly convoluted, but any way to work in post-war apocalypse was jumped at in this period of sci-fi.)

The effects of the plague are extremely weird and never explained in any sort of satisfactory way. But, in general, once you have caught the plague, you start choking, you black out, then you die. Only, some of the people didn't die. Instead, they became albinos who wear black cloaks and chant together during the night.

Who are these people? I have no idea. I do know that they have it out for Neville, who lives alone in his swank L.A. pad, casually picking off the albinos with a rifle from his living room window. The albinos only come out at night, and during the day Neville zooms around in a sports car, hunting them down in their sleep and shooting them, which, not surprisingly, royally pisses them off. And although there are like 100 albinos, they still cannot seem to take down the single super-man.

Through another flashback, we find out that Neville was a scientist who was working on an experimental vaccine for the plague. After inexplicably surviving a fiery helicopter crash, Neville injected himself with the vaccine, and viola–meet the Omega Man.

Eventually, Neville finds a few other people who haven't died/turned albino yet–a bunch of hippies and a sexy black woman named Lisa, who almost immediately peels off her skin-tight cat-suit to have a roll in the hay with Neville. Neville then begins drawing blood from his body to give to the other "normal" people so that they too can become immune to the plague. The blood-vaccine is successful, but the albinos finally manage to catch up to Neville and chuck a big spear through his heart.

The Omega Man is based on the famous 1954 Richard Matheson story "I Am Legend," and was first filmed in 1964 as The Last Man on Earth, starring Vincent Price. Although generally considered inferior, Last Man is actually a stronger movie than Omega Man and follows its own logic much better, without the distractions of big special effects, confusing symbolism, or baffling Heston-isms delivered grimly through a clenched jaw.

In Last Man, the dead are turned into zombies, plain and simple, slow-moving and unintelligent. Instead of Heston's posh pad, Price lives in an unprotected suburban house, yet night after night the zombies fail to break in. However, the ending is even more downbeat—just like Heston, Price is killed with a stake through the heart, but without saving anyone, for he is killed before he can explain about his vaccine.

There have long been rumors of a new version of "I Am Legend," and names like Arnold Schwarzenegger and James Cameron have floated around it. For a rather strange little story, there has been a surprising amount of interest in it over the last five decades, and it stems from the allegorically rich premise of being the last man on Earth and representing humanity, particularly in the face of a dead past—present in both the run-down cities and the stumbling zombies.

Like a lot of 1970's science-fiction, The Omega Man is both thematically ambitious and very downbeat. Take the Christ symbolism, for example. Neville offers up his blood to his followers so that they may live. He makes a crack about being "crucified." And then there's the infamous final shot: after Neville has been harpooned, he falls into a bloody fountain and lies there, his arms outstretched, his head bowed, his knees together and slightly to the side. Not only is it a Jesus Christ pose, but possibly the most overt Jesus Christ pose in the history of cinema. It is so blatantly ridiculous that it makes you rewind your VCR to make sure you saw it right.

While one has to respect these 70's sci-fi movies for shooting for the fences, metaphorically speaking, there is another, more disturbing symbolism occurring at the same time in Omega Man, one of racism. While we can certainly forgive Lisa, her groovy outfits, her Black Power 'fro, and expressions like "this is a honkey's paradise" as merely signs of the time, there is something kind of disturbing about how Neville—the powerful, martyred white man—uses his strong, WASP blood to save the "sinners"—namely, the blacks and the hippies.

?At the same time—and perhaps I'm reading too much into this—the rather forceful presence of strong black characters (who are usually absent in mainstream cinema) seems to intentionally highlight the fact that, as you become stricken with the plague, you turn white. One of the hippie kids, a black teen, hovers on the edge for a while, and he looks like Michael Jackson—not quite black, not quite white.

There's also a strong anti-technology vibe in Omega Man. True, the albinos hate Neville because he has a bad habit of murdering them, but they also go to great lengths to condemn his use of technology. The albinos were scarred by the war, and therefore believe that any use of the technology that Neville indulges in—science, medicine, electricity, weapons, machines, 8-track players—is evil. (This is partly why they are unable to kill Neville—they are reliant on silly medieval catapults to break into his penthouse.)

All of this is interesting but doesn’t add up to much. Contrary to the pretty well thought-out symbolism of Planet of the Apes, the Christ/race/technology themes in Omega Man are tossed into the film in the same way an extra explosion is; it's only there to momentarily distract you. But even with its thematic laziness, hammy acting, and plot holes you could drive a 18-wheeler through, they just don't make them like this anymore—big, bad, and damn proud of it.