Neither the title nor the tagline are accurate in the slightest
Two years after nuclear war and a vicious biological agent killed nearly the entire human population, Robert Neville lives alone in his penthouse apartment in Los Angeles, slowly losing his grip on reality as he struggles to survive the nightly attacks from a group of mutant zealots called "The Family." Eventually, though, he loses the battle, and just as the Family prepares to execute him for the crime of surviving the apocalypse, Neville is rescued by another group, not quite survivors but not quite mutants either. With their help, Neville concocts a cure to the plague that has ravaged mankind, but the Family is determined to finish their punishment and destroy any hope for redemption.
When looking at all three Hollywood film adaptations of Richard Matheson's I am Legend, 1971's The Omega Man is easily the least faithful, but it's also my favorite. It has some serious problems with its execution, but as an entry in the anthology of post-apocalyptic Charlton Heston movies of the time period, it is relatively exciting and earnest enough to be worthy of attention.
It dispenses with most of Matheson's work by the end of the first act, which features a lot of Heston grumbling ironic one-liners to himself as he chugs his scotch and pulls out his automatic weapons to lay waste to a few inept, black-robed mutants. The basic idea of I am Legend is there, but these aren't mindless vampires, Neville isn't given the tragic family backstory, and most of the themes are modernized to reflect the fears of a different decade. It preserves a few of the deviations from The Last Man on Earth, such as Neville's scientific background, but in terms of telling Matheson's story, The Omega Man only uses a rough outline of it as a set-up for the completely different story this movie wants to tell.
He's a bad-ass
That story does present some interesting dilemmas, such as the question of whether Neville should try to cure the mutants instead of killing them, but most of the story is fairly standard post-apocalyptic fare in which a handful of survivors struggle to find a cure before they succumb to the illness and turn against each other, all while the infected amass outside their walls. There's a brief interracial love story between Neville and one of the other survivors, Lisa, and there's a lot of heavy-handed socio-political messaging and religious allegory just beneath the surface.
It improves upon the cure angle introduced in The Last Man on Earth by at least involving some scientific effort apart from a simple blood transfusion, but the script still can't seem to bother with understanding the difference between a vaccine and an antibiotic, much less waste any effort on explaining the nature of the apparently manmade disease, why some people survive it only to become apparently mind-controlled anti-technology radicals, or why some others have managed to go two years without being symptomatic. It also fails at being much of a horror film, as the atmosphere is simply too cheesy to offer any real scares.
These guys are morons
No, this is first and foremost an action movie, as announced quite clearly in the opening scene. When looked at that way, it's possible to see where The Omega Man actually succeeds on its own merits. It's not a great movie, but it's an enjoyable, low-budget action flick that moves along at a fast enough clip to gloss over its gaping plot holes, unanswered questions, and narrative conveniences. The main reason it works, of course, is Charlton Heston, who is perfectly cast as a grizzled action hero version of Robert Neville. For the ladies, he also spends a heck of a lot of time without a shirt.
Where it falls apart for me is in its final moments, with the newly cured Ritchie being mercilessly slaughtered, Lisa suddenly turning both physically and ideologically, and Neville ultimately dying out of sheer stupidity, hanging on just long enough to hand a bottle of serum to the other survivors. There are just too many logical gaps here, and it kind of feels like the writer of the story had no idea how to end it.
The religious symbolism is even more blatant this time
It's an ending that results from The Omega Man not knowing what kind of film it is. If it were truly intended to be an action flick, then Neville should have survived, Matthias and the mutants should have been defeated by their own hubris, and the movie should have ended with triumph and hope. If the film were truly intended to be a bleak horror like Matheson's book, then Neville should have died and the serum should have been destroyed, removing all hope for the remaining survivors. (Given how many of those survivors are children, though, this would not have been a good choice.) Instead, this adaptation tries to split the baby, with predictable results.
Despite the muddled ending and the film's other flaws (that soundtrack, for example), I do like this movie, and I think it's good enough to qualify as a science-fiction classic. As an adaptation of Matheson's work, it's terrible, but as its own thing, it's about as good as its cousin, Soylent Green, though nowhere near as great as Planet of the Apes. If it weren't for Charlton Heston, I imagine this movie would probably have failed, but thanks to his chewing the scenery with a variety of guns by his side, it's hard not to be entertained by The Omega Man.
-e. magill 9/10/2020
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