Based upon the Richard Matheson novel I Am Legend, "The Omega Man" features Charlton Heston in the starring role. With Will Smith currently starring in a big-budget adaptation of the novel and keeping the title "I Am Legend," it is a good time to revisit this second telling of novel after the 1964 film "The Last Man on Earth" with Vincent Price first brought Matheson's book to the big screen. While "The Omega Man" is not overly faithful to the Matheson story, it retains many of the primary themes of the book. Heston was a very bankable star at the time when the film was made and he was an every-man type of hero, much in the same vein as Will Smith is currently a big name star that embodies a hero that is believable as a common man.
"The Omega Man" tells the story of Colonel Robert Neville (Charlton Heston). He has survived an apocalyptic plague that has nearly wiped out the entire human population. Neville exists as the last uninfected human, but is in a constant struggle with a band of plague-infested mutants that call themselves "The Family." The Family is led by a man called Matthias (Anthony Zerbe) and they are hindered by an inability to exist in natural and artificial lighting. They want to kill the ‘devil' of Neville and consider him a great threat to their survival. Neville survives by his own military background and his occupation of being a medical doctor in the military. He is immune to the plague after taking a vaccine and survives day-by-day by looking for supplies and scavenging for items to make his daily life a little more enjoyable.
One day Neville comes across a survivor, Lisa (Rosalind Cash). He finds her trying in clothing in a clothing store and eventually tracks her down. She is not alone and has a handful of surviving children she is protecting. Neville offers to help her and the children out, but the person that needs the most assistance is Lisa's brother Richie (Eric Laneuville). Richie is slowly turning into one of The Family because of his infection and Neville must use his own blood to create an antibody that will help cure Richie and inoculate Lisa and the children. He finds himself romantically involved with Lisa, but all of this occurs at a time when the Family are stepping up their efforts to kill Neville and stop the reign of terror Neville has created as he kills Family members.
The limited special effects available to the film and its simplified adaptation of the Matheson novel limits "The Omega Man." Heston is a man who has taken racial and environmental concerns to heart and worked to better the world by rallying behind these social issues. It is of no surprise that "The Omega Man" looks at race in two entirely different lights. The bi-racial love affair between Lisa and Neville would have been controversial in the Seventies, as it was still considered taboo to have a white man and black woman engage in sexual activities. It was not nearly as heated a topic as when Shatner and Nichols shared a bi-racial kiss on the "Star Trek" television series, but it provided Heston a platform to make a racial statement.
The other racial theme in the film is one of its primary plot points. The differences between Neville and the Family and their inability to exist together peacefully mirrors racial tensions that had existed during the Sixties and Seventies. The Family has a funk to them that is more akin to African American culture during the Seventies. They call themselves brothers, wear large sunglasses and take the role of being a minority to ‘the man' who in this case is Neville. Neville is a stereotypical white military man who would rather eradicate the Family than try to understand them. He is power and control and a statement to high society. He lives in an uptown penthouse (relatively speaking) and locks himself away from those that exist on the streets below. At one point, Neville is even given a Klan-like white cap to wear to his own burning.
Charlton Heston is solid in the role of Robert Neville. He was always more than capable of playing a hero with a conscience. He can bring about both brain and brawn into his roles and this role requires Heston to handle himself with both a machine gun and a medical laboratory. I felt it a bit odd that the aging Heston seemed Hell-bent on taking off his shirt as many times as possible, but he had me fully believing him as Neville. I had briefly mentioned Shatner earlier in this review and like Shatner, Heston has an interesting vocal delivery that is quite unique. It could be said that Heston overacts in many of his roles, but Heston has a way of making his mannerisms work into the role of Neville. Neville is a man tormented by loneliness and must battle both the Family and isolation. Heston easily conveys the mental anguish of his character.
What I did find impressive in "The Omega Man" was the manner in which the filmmakers were able to create a post-apocalyptic Los Angeles. The opening wide-angle shot showed very little hint of civilization and it takes a sharp pair of eagle eyes to spot the cars in the distance or other hints of life. Watching Heston tear around the streets in the early going was quite impressive and definitely created a sense that Robert Neville was alone. The emptied out Dodger Stadium was easier to achieve, but empty ball fields are always haunting. There was a very limited amount of special effects available to the film makers and without computers and the supersized backlots of the 1930s and 1940s, the filmmakers had to rely on shooting on-location. It wasn't perfect, but the post-apocalyptic Los Angeles was more than impressive given the decade in which the film was created.
"The Omega Man" is not deep, regardless of its underlying racial and social themes. The film is light entertainment that manages to include a few action scenes and a little sense of danger. The supporting cast does fine jobs of providing character to their roles, but all seem lesser than Heston. He is a commanding personality and the remainder of the cast almost seems content to simply take a backseat and not bring a lot of emotion to their roles. The action scenes are unspectacular, but I wouldn't blame anybody for chewing a nail or two when Neville's protected apartment is finally breached by The Family. "I Am Legend" is not a long novel and doesn't provide a lot of back-story to easily facilitate a full-length film and unfortunately, "The Omega Man" doesn't help itself by bringing anything grand to the table. It is a nice little film that is a reminder of the late Seventies and provides another heroic role for Charlton Heston to ham his way through.
The VC-1 encoded 2.40:1 transfer of "The Omega Man" looks quite good on Blu-ray. The level of detail and coloring for this 1971 film is surprisingly good and shows little wear. From the opening wide angle shot of Heston's red convertible, the level of detail is strong. The 1080p transfer shows the fine texture of the stone building Heston shoots up with a machine gun and the coloring gives a true metallic feel to the red car. Other moments of the film are equally strong and show the age in Heston's face or each hair in Rosalind Cash's ‘fro. Given the age of the film, it is not too disappointing that the film does have a few soft and grainy scenes to have to sit through. It does not hold up as strongly in darker lit scenes and the wide-angle lenses used could not hold up to the level of detail of the film's other cameras. You can definitely see an increase of detail when the camera is up close on Heston. If you can look past the consistent grain found in the film and the occasional speck of dirt, then "The Omega Man" is bound to impress you with this detailed transfer.
The soundtrack for "The Omega Man" is quite thin due to its age and sound design. The English Dolby Digital 1.0 mono soundtrack is quite unimpressive and I would have loved for Warner Bros. to create a new surround master for the film, considering it freshened up the visuals a few years ago. I played the film using the discrete analog outputs of my Blu-ray player and the entire soundtrack was contained in my center channel. The music contained in the film was flat, as were the various sound effects. A scene in the film where telephones begin ringing off the hook pushes my center channel about as hard as anything else and it sounded good, but in today's world it is hard to excuse a single channel soundtrack. I did switch over to my Playstation 3 to enable the ability to activate my Denon receiver's additional sound capabilities and this did provide a slightly better sound to the film, although it was just the same sound through the front three speakers. Dialogue was good, but this film needs an audio remaster.
A slim fifteen minutes of bonus materials are provided for the Blu-ray release of "The Omega Man." The Introduction by Screenwriter Joyce Corrington and Co-Stars Eric Laneuville and Paul Koslo (4:02) is an oddly promotional feeling introduction that feels more like a four minute infomercial for the film or short making of documentary than it does as an introduction to the film. The second supplement on the disc is a little meatier. The Last Man Alive – The Omega Man (9:48) finds the film's director, Boris Sagal, talking about his experiences in making the film. This vintage feature includes moments with other crew members and they focus on the efforts to create a post-apocalyptic film. This was fun to watch for its retro feel and the few moments with Charlton Heston behind-the-scenes. The third and final provided piece of value added content is the film's Theatrical Trailer.
I have yet to see the Will Smith version of "I Am Legend." However, I have read the short novel and watched the Charlton Heston film "The Omega Man" a couple of times. This 1971 retelling of the Richard Matheson novel is muddied with Seventies sensibilities and limited to the technology available to filmmaking when this film was produced. The desolate streets of Los Angeles are intriguing and I was surprised at how well the filmmakers did in creating an empty city on the budget they had. The Blu-ray release features a grainy, but strong looking transfer of the vintage film. The soundtrack is dated with only a Dolby Digital Mono track being provided. The supplements are short and interesting for their retro feel, but do not dig up anything overly deep or impressive. They are worth a quick watch, but that is about it. For those curious to see this film after watching the newer Will Smith movie, or for those just looking to taste the Seventies, then "The Omega Man" isn't a bad pick for a weekday evening. Charlton Heston is always fun and there is more to like about this film than to dislike.