The Omega Man

Anti-Communist rhetoric of the most entertaining order.

Released in 1971, certified UK-PG. Reviewed on 08 Apr 2005 by Craig Eastman
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Aaaah, the seventies. Independent film making might have been pushing the envelope in earnest for the first time, but as far as this reviewer's concerned the cinematic highlight of the decade (Messrs Eastwood, Smith and Wesson aside) was the pinnacle of paranoia; Reds-under-the-bed Cold War fear and the acceleration of scientific progression meshing in perfect harmony to deliver a spate of space invasions and viral outbreaks. Of all the commercially successful variations on this theme, none disguises it's true intentions quite so thinly as The Omega Man. While 1978's Invasion Of The Body Snatchers remake might have embodied a more cerebral and, some would argue, worthy spin on the "isolated resistance" riff, Chuck Heston's vehicle here displays the arrogant comic book glossing-over of political issues to match it's star's pompous, outspoken anti-Communist stance as President of the NRA. This, it turns out, is a good thing.

Actually the second adaptation of Richard Matheson's seminal novel I Am Legend (an oft-touted Ridley Scott update starring Arnie now presumably canned since the T-100 turned Governator), The Omega Man disposes with subtlety in favour of the thinnest characterisation and immediately pits former army scientist Heston against hordes of elusive, shadow-dwelling vampire types. The reason? Germ warfare resulting from a Russian push on Eastern territories precipitates an infection that leaves most of the world's population pushing up the daisies, while rendering the few survivors sunlight-fearing albino freaks bent on the destruction of all things mechanical by way of scant compensation. Having been working on an experimental vaccine at the time of this incident, Heston appears the only survivor not affected by this regressive contagion, and as a fine, upstanding American citizen in possession of the squarest of jaws he'll be damned if any pseudo-Commie, backward-thinking hordes are going to force him out of his plush San Francisco apartment.

As unashamedly brash as it is misconceived (one scene appears to offer the dope-smoking hordes of Woodstock as the best and brightest hopefuls of America's future), The Omega Man is angry and, frankly, doesn't give a shit whether you agree with it's ethos or not. The message here is clear; either you value the American way of life, or you're one dead son of a bitch. In the context of it's times this is a movie that no doubt had them cheering in the aisles, though in our own more politically sophisticated idiom (by which I refer to our understanding of politics before you ask, and not our politicians') it's hard not to view the proceedings more as a quaint memento of naive, decidedly McCarthy-esque times. Heston's detached attitude at first seems entirely appropriate given the isolation of his character, but as the movie progresses and further survivors come out of the woodwork it's clear his lack of expression stems from the fact that hidden or not, The Omega Man has an agenda, and this puts our man Chuck on a mission.

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Only ever as emotive as the grease gun he uses to casually despatch the vampire scum back unto the darkness from whence they came, Heston is never less than brutally efficient in the role of Righteous Avenger. Never far from the crutch of his right wing it's his machine gun that does all the talking, unfortunately affording the supporting cast of shuffling hell merchants little opportunity to put up much of a verbal defence. Mind you, with a calibre of script that has them mostly muttering about "users of the wheel" and such-like it's perhaps some kind of blessing that automatic gunfire drowns out most of what little anyone has to say. As leader of the vampire scum Anthony Zerbe has never had so little to accomplish in the space of 90 minutes, and with his makeup hardly likely to have taken more than ten minutes one can only imagine the lonely hours he probably spent wandering around the set keeping himself amused counting spent shell casings.

Ditto the statue-esque Rosalind Cash who, being the only adult female currently not infected by the disease, serves only to bed Heston in an almost offensively opaque attempt at proving the man is actually a staunch Liberal, what with him being progressive enough to knock up an African-American and all. At least in addition to being primarily a bit of eye candy the good lady is given a chance to show some sass as the only other member of the cast deemed faithful enough to be granted the use of a firearm. As for the little kiddies Heston so generously harvests his own vaccinated blood to ensure the survival of, well...what were their names again? Never mind, here come some more hooded horrors. Rat-a-tat-tat!

"But Disko," I hear you cry "why the derogatory tone when we see you have afforded this movie four stars?" Well, dear readers, the thing is this; The Omega Man occupies a category of movie I rarely come across. It's entirely unquantifiable. It's not really good on any apparent level, but at the same time, it's not a case of it being so bad that it's good. I think perhaps it's the fact I understand it in the context of it's times in combination with the sheer, childlike gusto of it all that endears it to me so much. As a display of sheer bravado it's probably never been bettered. We are, after all, talking about a movie that plays like a fascist manifesto yet has the temerity to have its hero suffer a Christ-like fate in the final reel. It's either got balls of brass or enough naivety to sink the Titanic, but either way I'm lovin' it. As a bookmark on it's times The Omega Man is either incredibly insightful or unbelievably irrelevant depending on your perspective, but it doesn't really matter when all you need is gun-nut Heston spitting lead fury to make your day. Bravo!

I award this 4 out of 5 Good Thangs

Boris Sagal
Cast list:
Charlton Heston (Robert Neville)
Anthony Zerbe (Matthias)
Rosalind Cash (Lisa)