Sunday, 11 February 2018

BITE-SIZED REVIEW: The Omega Man (dir. Boris Sagal, 1971)

In the near future of 1975, a border war between the USSR and China escalates to biological warfare that wipes out humanity. Two years later, scientist Robert Neville (Charlton Heston) lives a lone existence in Los Angeles. By day, he searches for supplies and hunts for the diseased Family. By night, he holes up in his fortified house while the Family lay siege outside.

When he stumbles upon a small group of survivors who have not succumbed like the Family, Neville realises there might be a chance to save humanity...

The second adaptation of Richard Matheson's terrific novel I Am Legend, The Omega Man cannot measure up to the book (for one, it does not include the ending), but on its own merits it is a fun post-apocalyptic thriller. A lot of its watchability comes down to the cast, led by Mr Cold Dead Hands himself, Charlton Heston.

After gaining stardom in historical epics, Charlton Heston used the second wind he received from Planet of the Apes as a springboard into the science fiction genre. Following The Omega Man, Heston would appear in the dystopian thriller Soylent Green. He is on great form here.

With all of his best roles, there is always the sense that Heston's character is a bit of a shit (even Taylor in Planet of the Apes), and that quality works well for his performance as Neville.

A lot of the movie's best scenes are just based around Heston wandering around the city, talking to himself: talking to a statue in his house, or bartering with the desiccated corpse of a car salesman as he gets a new car.

Neville's life gets more complicated when he stumbles into another survivor, Lisa (Rosalind Cash), who is a member of a band of young people and kids who have been infected but have not begun to display symptoms.

Because this is a Hollywood movie made in the 70s, eventually Neville and Lisa fall in love. Why? 'Cause it's a movie. Beyond the age gap, there is something disconcerting about an old-fashioned star like Heston juxtaposed with someone so specifically early 70s.

I have to say,  I thought their chemistry was pretty good. Two lonely people drawn together by shared trauma? I buy it. Could it have been better developed. Definitely. Actually, that's my overall feeling on the movie - and not just because it does not follow the book.

The Omega Man is one of those 70s genre movies with all the components for greatness (cool lead character, interesting world) that does not fulfil its potential. It is fun, but the sense of danger that the filmmakers are aiming for is never really there.

Take the movie's villains: The Family could be solid antagonists, but they never get the opportunity to really shine. Anthony Zerbe is fine as their leader, a former newscaster-turned-prophet, but never feels that intimidating. A big problem is that they are never that smart. They only manage to get the jump on Neville because Lisa turns at the convenient time.

The biggest flaw is the direction. While it is not bad, there is something rather televisual about Boris Sagal's direction which lets the movie down. The movie's fashion sense is extremely contemporary, but it never looks like people have had to deal with any hardship. Everyone is just a little too put-together and made up.

The TV aesthetic became really apparent about midway through when Heston and Cash's characters start living together and acting like a couple. With the style of the direction, in these scenes the movie starts to resemble some weird TV comedy about an interracial couple who just happen to be living in a post-apocalyptic environment.

The film is at its best as an offbeat comedy - in one scene where the couple go scavenging in a store. Lisa picks up a pack of birth control and says they won't need it any more. This leads to the most terrifying image in the movie...

Overall, The Omega Man is a pretty entertaining flick that doesn't quite hit the bar it is reaching for. If you are a fan of post-apocalyptic movies, and Charlton Heston being an irate prick, it is worth a look. 

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