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The Omega Man
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THE OMEGA MAN - 1971
USA Release: AUG! 1, 1971
Catch 23 Entertainment / Killer Films / Laughlin Park Pictures / Madjak Films / 20th Century Fox
Rating: USA: R

Tim Burton wasn't the first to do a re-imagining rather than a re-make. But of course when I mention Tim Burton and his re-imagining of PLANET OF THE APES you immediately assume the category is "Movies that Suck". Well, we'll see.

THE OMEGA MAN was directed by Boris Sagal (THE TWILIGHT ZONE [TV], THE NIGHT GALLERY [TV]) and written by the husband and wife team of John Willam Corrigan and Joyce H. Corrington (BATTLE FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES, THE KILLER BEES [TV]), based on the novel "I Am Legend" by Richard Matheson. This novel was also the basis for the excellent Vincent Price movie LAST MAN ON EARTH.

We see Robert Neville (Charlton Heston: PLANET OF THE APES, BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES, SOYLENT GREEN, PLANET OF THE APES [2001]) driving a red convertible through an empty city. At first you're not sure if the city is just abandoned or what, but then you see the bodies. People long dead, looking as if they dropped in their tracks. Whatever happened here happened fast.

Neville seems to be completely alone, but he's not. When he spots a figure in a window he stops long enough to spray the building with machine-gun fire. But you don't see who it was and you don't know why he did it, which is a good, intriguing way to open a movie. You want to know what's going on.

Neville has a flat and decides to pick up a new car at a dealership down the block (odd that a car just sitting for years would start right up). Inside he sees a calendar showing the month of December 1975. That's four years in the future from the moviemaker's point of view, but almost three years in Neville's past. Clearly that's also when the world came to an end.

The omega Man alt poster

In a series of flashbacks we learn that Neville was both a colonel in the Army and a doctor specializing in biological warfare. When war broke out between China and the Soviet Union – described to us by news anchor named Matthias (Anthony Zerbe: THE DEAD ZONE, THE MATRIX RELOADED, THE MATRIX REVOLUTIONS) – weaponized plague spread to the U.S. Neville succeeded in developing a vaccine (which is why he's immune) but it was too late for everyone else. The human race is gone.

Mostly. A very few people infected with the plague don't die right away. They go through a slow process of decay that turns them into photophobic albinos. These sort-of survivors have banded together into a religious cult called “The Family” and blame the destruction of humanity on technology. Neville symbolizes all that they hate and he hates them right back.

Heston does a good job portraying a man who is just barely holding on to his sanity. His conversations with a bust of Julius Caesar reminded me of Tom Hanks and Wilson in Cast Away (toward the end when it was crazy, not funny). He fights to stay alive but for what? Every day he hunts for the infected (bright light hurts them so they only come out at night) and every night they try to get into the fortress he's made of his house. The situation can't end well. Unless he had something to care about…

Which he does, of course, or we wouldn’t have much of a movie. To his amazement there turns out to be a tiny group of people who are infected but who haven't “gone over” to the final, albino stage of the disease. Among this group are the very foxy Lisa (Rosalind Cash: DR. BLACK AND MR. HYDE, THE ADVENTURES OF BUCKAROO BANZAI ACROSS THE 8TH DIMENSION, THE OFFSPRING, DEATH SPA), former med student Dutch (Paul Koslo: CLEOPATRA JONES, THE DROWNING POOL, SOLAR CRISIS, ROBOT JOX) and the very young Ritchie (Eric Laneuville: DEATH WISH, LOVE AT FIRST BITE).

But all I care about is having a

!!!SCIENCE MOMENT!!!:
In the novel the infected are vampires and the movie LAST MAN ON EARTH is faithful to that aspect of the story. But screenwriter Joyce H. Corrington, also a Ph.D. in chemistry, wanted to write science fiction, not fantasy (she explains all this in an interview included in the DVD extras) so the vampires became the believable victims of a terrible, man-made disease. Biowar was just becoming a major concern in the late 60’s / early 70’s when this movie was made (and we know now that the Soviet Union kept stockpiles of some very nasty stuff). The Sino-Soviet war releasing bioweapons that spread across the globe was very much a reasonable fear then and unemployed Soviet scientists selling their expertise to terrorists is a perfectly reasonable fear now.

Ok, so I like the science and I like Heston's acting. Now the bad news: much of the dialogue is pretty hokey as is much of the acting by the non-Hestons. Before I knew that the director had directed Columbo episodes I found myself thinking, "this feels like a Columbo episode." Not in the good Columbo-is-a-cool-character way but in the 70’s-made-for-TV-movie way. You especially get that feel from the poorly chosen background music.

So it's a mixed bag, like so many movies are, of some cool stuff and some lame stuff. Sorting it all out and applying my trusty movie-rating algorithm, I can scientifically state that THE OMEGA MAN gets three shriek girls.

Shriek GirlsShriek GirlsShriek Girls
This review copyright 2004 E.C.McMullen Jr.

The Omega Man (1971) on IMDb
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