Saturday, October 6, 2012

Oh Me, Oh My, Omega: "The Omega Man" (1971)

Charlton Heston plays another anti-hero in another successful sci-fi adaptation of a Richard Matheson novel.

Heston is Neville, who is convinced he is the last man on Earth. He tools around an abandoned Los Angeles, stealing cars and taking whatever he needs to survive. The film is set in the then future year of 1977, and it was released in 1971. As China and the U.S.S.R. fight a war, germ warfare wipes out the population. Neville was a government scientist who injected himself with an experimental vaccine and is immune to the plague. He is also not officially the last man on Earth.

Neville is being hunted by the Family, led by Matthias (Anthony Zerbe) and his right hand man Zachary (Lincoln Kilpatrick), The Family are full of people afflicted with the illness, but not dead yet. They have chalk white skin and hair, and a sensitivity to light. They attack Neville during the night, and Neville hunts them during the day. Neville is quite alone, talking to a bust of Caesar in his home (like Wilson in "Cast Away") and hallucinating ringing phones in the middle of the city.

Neville eventually stumbles across Lisa (Rosalind Cash) and her group of people, who all appear normal. They rescue Neville after he falls into the Family's hands. The group does have the plague, but it is not as advanced as the Family's is. Neville begins treating Lisa's brother, Richie (Eric Laneuville) with his own anti-biotic laced blood, and he begins treating Lisa to a little "last man" lovin'. As the group of "normal" people make plans to get out of L.A., and away from the Family, a cured Richie decides to try and help Matthias' cult, which he and Lisa used to belong to.

The Family turns on the help, and make a last ditch effort to get Neville, with the help of a recently turned Lisa. The ending is both violent, and sad.

Boris Sagal directs with a sure hand here, and his set decoration creates a totally believable abandoned Los Angeles. Corpses are strewn everywhere, dust covers everything, and it is all very convincing. The makeup and action sequences work as well.

One could almost say Neville and Lisa's romance is forced, and it is. It is forced because they are attracted to each other physically, after a couple of years of being alone. The film makers show good restraint by not turning this into some romantic, gooey tripe, but a physical attraction that could turn into something more, if they had the chance.

Charlton Heston is great here, playing his role well. Zerbe as Matthias is menacing, his Family believes God punished the world for technology, and they are the chosen people now. Zerbe is creepy everytime he is on screen. A special word for Rosalind Cash, who died just a few years ago. This great actress was later relegated to daytime television and sitcom guest shots. In this film, she proved she had the goods, and should have received a more successful career than what she had. She is a joy to watch here, both physically and acting-wise.

Eric Laneuville as Richie is okay, except for his character's naivete. He decides to go "help" the Family, as if his character has been in a coma for the whole film, and does not believe the wrongs this group of homicidal maniacs are capable of. There is not enough motivation for him to seek Matthias out of friendship, and the film took a step back for me at this point. The musical score is also in need of dumping, I just do not hear jazz riffs when I watch end of the world action sequences. "The Omega Man" is a very good, and very surprising film, full of good performances and a plot that moves quickly.

While some may fantasize about a world where you can do whatever you want without others hassling you, "The Omega Man" and the infamous Burgess Meredith/"Time Enough At Last" episode of "The Twilight Zone" give us a new side to the fantasy. (* * * *) out of five stars.