Film Review: The Omega Man (1971)


The Omega Man is a weird film to think about in the wake of the presidential election. It’s a film that is as counter-cultural as it is against the counter-culture, with a protagonist who, as a character, very heavily represents the establishment, and who is played by an actor whose later life left him intrinsically linked, in a way, with the establishment.

The film is an adaptation of Richard Matheson’s classic science fiction story I Am Legend. The story is set in a post-apocalyptic LA where Col. Robert Neville, M.D. (Charlton Heston), is hunting down the infected monsters left behind in an exchange of biological weapons between China and Russia that killed or infected what appeared to be all life on Earth – until Neville discovers other survivors.

Meanwhile, the monsters, known as “The Family” in a subtle-as-a-brick-to-the-face reference to Charles Manson, blame the end of the world on science and technology, and are trying to destroy all knowledge of the “old world” in an Inquisition-by-way-of-Hippies purge, and as part of this killing Neville. However, Neville is immune, having tried an experimental vaccine on himself before society fell, only for his remaining samples to be destroyed in a helicopter crash.

So, on the one hand, the anti-establishment part of the film is very clearly in the vein of the Cold War refrain of “Dear God, if we keep doing what we’re doing, we’re going to end the world. We need to stop this crap and come together in peace.” Further, the other humans Neville encounters are people of the younger generation, who have less invested in the older system and who are flexible enough and will be around enough to build a new one. On the other hand, “The Family” and its philosophies are built out of some of the early New Age counter-culture groups, that science and technology are bad, they take us out of touch with the world, and they have only wrought destruction, despair, and conflict.

In the middle of all of this is Neville, who is part of the old authority both in terms of the power structure (being a military officer), and in terms of technology (being a scientist – though not the person who designed the plague). Once Neville makes contact with the survivors, lead by Lisa (Rosalind Cash), he then works to use his blood to create a potential cure before leaving. However, The Family is unwilling to let them leave peaceably.

The film is generally executed well – though the symbolism of the ending is about as hamfisted as the Family/Manson metafor – Neville is killed helping cure an infected Lisa and fighting off The Family, with the survivors leaving with a cured Lisa and some samples of Neville’s blood, with them building a new world from the ashes of the old, and Neville himself dying in a christ-like pose, dying to redeem the sins of the old world.

The acting performances are generally good – Heston’s performances as Neville, when alone, fluctuate on how unhinged he has actually become through months (if not years) of constant isolation broken up by being besieged. The Family is a little more rough, trying to seem appropriately Manson-esque and not quite pulling it off. The remaining Survivors, on the other hand, are great, especially Rosalind Cash’s performances.

The film also has some great set design and photography. Through just timing, the director and crew were able to do an amazing job of making LA look isolated and abandoned.

I have not seen the Vincent Price and Will Smith adaptations of I Am Legend, but having seen this one first, this film makes for a high bar to clear in the early stages, but there is room to improve in the conclusion.

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