Saturday night I sat down with two physicists from Union University and watched Charlton Heston in The Omega Man. The film is part of an unofficial apocalyptic trilogy which includes Planet of the Apes and Soylent Green.
First thought: Heston was still rocking his own hair in this film. I like that. One of the great improvements in today’s Hollywood is that a guy like Bruce Willis is allowed to run around without a hairpiece. Heston didn’t need one with that great face of his.
Second thought: I have apparently never seen this film outside of running into it on cable. Seeing it uncut on DVD is a whole new experience. There are several scenes I don’t recognize from previous viewings.
Third thought: Though it obviously can’t compete with the Will Smith remake (the third version of Richard Matheson’s book I Am Legend) in terms of effects or heart-racing action, The Omega Man is a much more substantial film in terms of ideas. Heston is holed up in his residence surrounded by artifacts of western civilization. He is a scientist and a renaissance man. Thanks to a last minute success, he is immune to the plague that has decimated the human population and left the overwhelming majority psychologically unstable, murderous, and mutated. They live their waking hours at night under a cultic leader who rails against technology and progress. Instead, he emphasizes a tribal sort of brotherhood in thrall to his own charismatic leadership. The imagery is hard to miss. Heston is the older, white man holding on at the apex of social achievement and trying not to fall off the mountain like the rest of the world has. His antagonists, the Family, are a proxy for sixties radicals who want to chuck the entire civilizational project and embrace primitivism. NEXT PARAGRAPH SPOILER . . .
The writers of The Omega Man do something interesting with the end of the movie. Heston’s character has been working successfully on a serum made from his own blood. Thanks to a reversal of the plague in one victim, it is clear that it works. Heston is killed with a spear through the chest as he tries to save a young woman who is succumbing to the disease and to the siren call of the leader of the Family. He slowly expires hanging cruciform on a fountain that turns red with his blood. Daybreak comes and the last surviving humans come to him hoping to all leave together for the wilderness where they can start anew. Heston’s last act is to give them the serum. They drive off, apparently saved by Heston’s sacrifice. So, Heston’s character is clearly a Christ figure. What is so intriguing is that his Christ figure is a man of science. Faith and knowledge merge in the film’s climax.
You don’t get any of that in the Will Smith version which basically treats the mutated human beings as equivalent to zombies. Again, Smith’s performance is terrific, as is the entertainment and excitement value of the film, but the big ideas aren’t there.
Also interesting is the fact that neither of the two big versions have run with the actual premise of Richard Matheson’s book. In Matheson’s story, there is a last man remaining from civilization as we know it who spends all day every day locating the mutated humans and killing them. He is grim in his determination to kill these creatures who now lurk in the night. The great twist in that story . . .
. . . is that the man we have identified with as a hero throughout the book is finally captured. He listens to how they talk about him and suddenly realizes that, in their view, HE is the monster. His death will be like a kind of deliverance for them. Quite a nice twist. I wonder why Hollywood hasn’t gone that way with the story?