# 43: The Omega Man


1971

Director:  Boris Sagal

Cast:  Charlton Heston, Anthony Zerbe, Rosalind Cash

Watch the trailer!

Introduction     Plot Summary     Impressions     Richard Matheson’s Novel     Wrap-up

My rating:  Class B (2/7).  Thoughtful, silly, funny, sad, striking…it doesn’t have the sheer visual power of a lot of the SF entries on this list, and it suffers from some of the pacing issues you might expect from a film from 1971, and the story’s ending is trite and predictable…but it is fun, and definitely worth watching.

 

Introduction

Here’s #43 on our list, headed up by the inestimable Charlton Heston in a role which actually surprised me in some ways, as well as played to some Heston stereotypes.  It’s based on a novel by Richard Matheson entitled I Am Legend, which should strike a note of some kind with modern theater-goers who might remember a Will Smith vehicle in 2007.  Others may remember the Vincent Price film The Last Man on Earth from 1964.  Any way you slice it, then, this is a story that seems to catch peoples’ imaginations periodically.

And why wouldn’t it?  It’s sort of the archetype of the modern take on zombies: a world-wide bacterial apocalypse, leaving its survivors hideously mutated and violent, with a love story worked in…with these kinds of ingredients at its base, it’s no wonder this is an enjoyable film.

Plot (Contains Spoilers)

Short summary:  Boy lives alone in a deserted city populated only by himself and some mutant monsters who used to be human.  Uneasy state of war between boy and monsters seemingly comes to an end when they capture him and prepare to burn him at the stake.  But WAIT!  Boy is rescued by cool Girl, who eventually introduces him to other infected but resistant survivors, mostly children.  Boy manages to cure Girl’s brother of the disease, who then seeks to make peace with the monsters.  It doesn’t work out, and Girl winds up as one of the monsters.  The monsters kill Boy.  The remaining survivors return and rescue Girl, then flee the city with the cure.

Long summary:  Well, you’ve pretty much got the essence of the story, now don’t you?  Still, there are some points that could do with amplification…

The boy is Neville, and in the opening of the film he’s got an experimental vaccine against a biological warfare agent being used in a war between China and the Soviet Union.  His helicopter crashes when his pilot dies from the disease, and in desperation, Neville injects himself with the vaccine.

We see Neville in the deserted city, talking to himself, going to movies by himself (he apparently favors documentaries about Woodstock), and possibly hearing things.  In short, he’s not necessarily sane, though he is well armed and picks out cool cars.  Hurrying back to his home before night falls, he’s late and winds up under attack by dark-cloaked, white-faced figures as he attempts to enter his fortified home.

The nocturnal albino plague victims are led by Matthias, who has built a pseudo-religious cult around himself called the Family.  One of the key elements of the cult seems to be that technology is bad, and it helped to cause the apocalypse, so the afflicted survivors abhor and reject technology.  They also don’t think too highly of Neville, and as their attack on him shows, they intend to kill him.  And they get their chance when they capture him, putting him through a trial before taking him to a football stadium to be burned at the stake.

Neville is rescued when someone turns on the lights of the stadium, blinding and incapacitating, at least temporarily, the Family.  That someone turns out to be Lisa, an attractive young woman with a motorcycle.  They escape on the motorcycle, with the aid of another hidden person (who turns out to be Drake).

Neville meets the Lisa’s group, which contains children, including her brother and Drake, a medical student.  Due to their youth, the young infected ones have not yet succumbed to the disease, excepting only Lisa’s young brother.  Lisa and Neville return to his well-fortified apartment home, where Neville uses his own blood (and his immunity to the disease) to concoct a cure.  The two also begin a romance…

Once cured, Lisa’s young brother expresses the belief that the Family can be reasoned with, cured, and peace restored.  In his conviction he goes to the headquarters of the Family.  Matthias does not believe him or accept the possibility of a cure, especially from Neville, and kills the boy.  And in the meantime, Lisa, out gathering supplies for their flight from the city, metamorphosizes into one of the zombie victims…

The Family, aided by zombie Lisa, gains entrance to Neville’s apartment and attacks him.  He flees as they set fire to the building, and Matthias watches from a balcony with Lisa nearby.  In the climactic finale, Neville’s gun jams, and he is unable to kill Matthias, but Matthias’ spear is subject to no such technological issues, and he kills Neville.

Drake and the children come upon the scene the next morning.  Lisa is still alive, and the immunity serum is in an unbroken bottle.  They take Lisa and the serum and leave the city.  Out of the ashes of tragedy, the future for the young ones is bright…

Impressions

Okay, that was a longer summary than we’ve done in a while, and I did it for a very specific reason:  the story is the thing in this film.  The special effects are virtually non-existent for a science fiction film, resting mostly on make-up and big fires.  The action is fairly stylized, and there are no major fight scenes.  In other words, this is not an eye candy kind of film.  It does have a gripping story, well-told and well acted, with deep social meaning.

Three of the characters assume archetypal importance in the film, the protagonist, the antogonist and the sacrificial victim.  I speak of Neville, Matthias, and Lisa’s little brother Richie.

Neville, as portrayed by Heston, is an intriguing study.  The film captures his loneliness in the opening sequences, and Heston really does a very nice job of delivering lines without other actors to play off.  He (with some help from the script) also gives the impression that Neville may be beginning to crack; the chess scene is particularly troublesome.  Little wonder, then, that he falls for Lisa almost as soon as he finds her.  Heston is by turns gallant, violent (and with guns, lots and lots of guns, which is nicely appropriate given Heston’s later stature with the NRA), solicitous, charming, loving…Heston does a really nice job turning in a believable performance here.

Matthias, on the other hand, is evil incarnate.  Well, actually, he’s not.  He’s a little crazy, too, but there’s no real indication that he doesn’t believe what he says, and he certainly makes plenty of room in his Family for any mutant who comes along.  It’s Matthias’ enmity and unreasoning hatred that drives the film to its unhappy conclusion.  The worst that can be said of him is that he is afraid of Neville and what he represents, and we really have no idea which of the two started the war.  Even in a worst-case scenario, in which Matthias started the conflict, his position is not entirely unreasonable.  Technology did start the problems, and it was unclean and dangerous.  Neville would bring back the same old culture, given the option, and it does seem that there’s no place for the nocturnals in a restored world.

Matthias’ rigidity and inability to accept the possibility of change, and change for the better, is the thing that puts the nail in the coffin for everyone.  When Richie goes to Matthias and explains that Neville can save them all, cure the infected and presumably return them to their normal states, Matthias can’t or won’t accept this.  He’s locked into the cycle of hate, though, and Neville is his enemy.  If the help had come from someone other than Neville, or if Neville had personally extended the olive branch, maybe things would have been different.

So is Matthias a cartoon villain or not?  Maybe I’m reading too much into the situation, but it seems to me that his response to the complete destruction of his culture, followed by an unwelcome transformation into a nocturnal albino along with the other wretched survivors, isn’t the kind of thing most of us could accept gracefully.  So I’m opting for the slightly insane villain perception.  Even his refusal to accept a cure must be seen through his perceptual filters, and is, within the confines of his worldview, understandable.

This doesn’t excuse him for what he does to Richie, the third powerful personality who makes a decision which turns the course of events to tragedy.  Richie is young, idealistic, and he believes that the members of the Family are human and deserve human consideration as well.  His conversation about this point with Neville is the moral center of the film.  Had Richie merely expressed his opinion, it would have been a very different film.  But he’s also afire with youthful idealism, and seems to be somewhat naive, so he acts and sets the stage for tragedy.

I don’t want to give the impression that the character of Lisa isn’t important, and she is decisive and strong-willed.  It’s just that she doesn’t make any of the big decisions which drive the plot.  Aside from her rescue of Neville, she’s more acted upon that actor.  I suppose that defines her arc, in fact:  she goes from rescuer and heroine to victim during the course of the film.  None of that is her fault; it’s inherent in her condition.  That said, her role is really important and Cash does an amazing job of bringing Lisa to life.  Her performance is essential to the success of the love story.

Some people have seen the film as some kind of metaphor for race issues, and from my perspective it’s hard to argue with that impression.  While I won’t say the film hits us over the head with the race issue, it does seem to go out of the way to set up the impression.  First, there’s the love story between a white man and a black woman.  Remember, this was 1971; it had been only four years previously that the Supreme Court struck down Virginia’s anti-miscegenation statute, and there were public school systems still under the jurisdiction of federal courts’ desegregation orders.  Nothing I’ve read says anything about this element, but I can only imagine it was a bit of a shock to mainstream audiences.

The black-robed, hooded albinos are a visual negative image of the Klu Klux Klan.  For me, this only strengthened the issue of race and race relations, though it may also set up an invidious extension of the metaphor…

To my way of thinking, the film is successful in terms of opening the question, at least, of race hatred.  Don’t misunderstand me here: I do not believe that the mutated albinos represent black people in the United States, setting up the question of whether black people can overcome centuries of institutionalized racism and slavery.  That would be pushing the metaphor a little too far.  No, I think the film does offer up a vision of a people who are at war against another group, and can’t let go of that hatred.  But then, that’s an enduring theme in fiction and in history.

I can’t end without addressing the religious overtones of the film.  Neville is, at the end of the film, a sort of Christ-like figure who is sprawled in a pool of his own blood in the crucified pose.  And it’s his blood that guarantees salvation for the child survivors, as well as Lisa and Drake.  The resonance with the story of Jesus is overt, and it gives the climactic moments of the film additional power and a visual punch.

Matheson’s Novel and Other Versions

Richard Matheson, author of I Am Legend, is a writer known for his work in the horror, fantasy and SF genres.  He wrote “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” one of the more memorable Twilight Zones episodes, as well as five novels later turned into films:  I Am Legend, What Dreams May Come, The Incredible Shrinking Man (which is an entry on our top 50 list, and coming up quickly), Bid Time Return (filmed as Somewhere in Time), and Duel (Spielberg’s first film).  Wow.

The Matheson novel pretty much sets the bar for the modern zombie concept.  George Romero commented that his film Night of the Living Dead owes its existence to the novel and the 1964 film version, The Last Man on Earth.  Its roots, too, are deeply embedded in Anglo-American culture, with startling similarities to the 1826 Mary Shelley (yes, the Frankenstein lady) novel The Last Man.

The novel isn’t quite like the film, mind you.  The vampire trappings are much more apparent in the novel (the infected are described as vampires), and Neville’s immunity may be due to being bitten by a vampire bat.  In any event, the novel has a much less ambiguous feel to it, as Neville wages a private war on the vampire survivors of the apparently natural plague until he meets Ruth, an uninfected human.

Of course, Ruth isn’t uninfected.  She’s a new development, along with her fellows, a sort of compromise between the nocturnal vampires and normal humanity.  Her people are attempting to rebuild society, and are furious with Neville because he’s killed some of their people as well as the vampires.  They capture Neville and try him for his crimes against their people.  While Neville is awaiting execution, Ruth comes to him and gives him pills so that he can take the easy way out.  As he lies dying, he realizes that to the vampires and the day walkers like Ruth, he is the monster, a twist in perception that causes him to say “[I am] a new supersition entering the unassailable fortress of forever. I am legend.”

I haven’t seen the other film versions of the novel, so I can’t comment intelligently on them other than to say I’ll be looking for the Vincent Price film.

Wrap-up

All told, this is a fascinating and fun film, well worth watching if you’re in the right mood.  The actors do a fantastic job with what is now a dated and hoary concept.  The film does update that concept to the ’70s, which still leaves it a little dated at this point, but given the film’s status as first Father of the zombie apocalypse, that’s okay.  While the film leaves out the twist from hero to monster (playing with the idea of perception in the question of what exactly makes a hero), it more than compensates with an ambiguous social commentary which perfectly fits the ending of Jim Crow’s dominance.  The film is not for everyone, mind you;  it is neither flashy nor action-oriented.  That said, the imagery throughout is striking.

Director Tim Burton has stated that this is one of his favorite films, and that he will stop what he’s doing and watch it if it comes on TV.  I’d recommend that you do the same, at the very least.  But on some chilly Autumn evening when you’re in the mood for a stimulating conversation provoking movie, go out and rent it.  Don’t wait for it to come to you.

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