The Guilty Pleasures: “The Omega Man”
I’m going to describe a movie. It’s a sci-fi movie from the early seventies. Charlton Heston is in it. He is the last man on Earth. He wears a track suit and speeds around post-apocalyptic L.A. in a convertible, battling albino zombie mutants with a machine gun.
Sounds awesome, right? It is. The movie is called The Omega Man, and it will blow your mind.
Now, let me clarify: When I say it will “blow your mind”, it’s not because The Omega Man is good. It’s certainly not bad, either. It’s not even mediocre. The Omega Man transcends traditional quality labels. It exists in its own universe; a universe where Charlton Heston plays imaginary games of chess with a bust of Julius Caesar. These games are often interrupted by Heston going to his window to yell at zombies to shut up. Sometimes, he has to back up the yelling with bullets.
It’s that kind of movie.
The Omega Man is set in the distant future of 1977, after biological warfare has wiped out most of the Earth’s population. The few survivors are deranged mutants, and a small group of them have become known as “The Family”, a nocturnal (and extremely judgmental) cult. The Family hates all modern technology, believing it to be the cause of the Earth’s destruction. They also hate Robert Neville (Charlton Heston), who managed to survive the devastating plague by injecting himself with an experimental serum. Neville represents the last of the old world to The Family, and they express their dislike by spending their nights outside his swank townhouse/bunker (referred to by one mutant as a “honky paradise”) yelling and burning books. Some nights, they make ham-fisted attempts to break in and kill him.
Naturally, Neville is not thrilled by the attention. He devotes his days to searching for The Family’s nest in the hope that their destruction will allow him to get a decent night’s sleep. Neville also takes advantage of the apocalypse as best he can, pillaging stores for groovy leisure suits and watching Woodstock over and over again in what is apparently the only movie theater in the entire city. The idealism and hope for the future expressed in Woodstock is, I think, supposed to act as an ironic counterpoint to the grim, end-of-the-world scenario The Omega Man presents. Like most of movie’s attempts at subtext, however, it comes off as awkward and obvious (although I may be giving too much credit: Woodstock, like The Omega Man, is a Warner Brothers production, and was therefore likely inexpensive to use).
Neville eventually stumbles upon a group of survivors who have not yet succumbed to the plague. They include Lisa (Rosalind Cash), whose awesome afro serves to remind viewers that yes, this film was shot in the seventies. It doesn’t take long for Lisa and Neville to hop into bed together. Chuck is The Omega Man, after all. He is also, as it turns out, humanity’s only hope for salvation, because there is a possibility that his blood can be used to manufacture a serum. That’s right, Chuck Heston’s blood holds the key to mankind’s future, and in case you missed the flashing neon sign that says CHRIST FIGURE, our hero eventually winds up with a spear in his side, splayed out in an obvious pose of crucifixion, after providing the remaining survivors with their precious serum. Fade to black. (Spoiler alert.)
The Omega Man is part of what I refer to as Heston’s Apocalypse Trilogy, which also includes the classic Planet of the Apes, and the less-than-classic Soylent Green. It is also the second of three adaptations (to date) of Richard Matheson’s novel I Am Legend, which was first filmed in 1964 as The Last Man on Earth, starring Vincent Price, and more recently as an expensive Will Smith blockbuster. Full disclosure: I haven’t seen the other movies, nor have I read the novel. But who cares? This is not a Reel Rumble; this is Guilty Pleasures: The Omega Man, so let’s talk about why this movie is such a pleasure.
And it is: The Omega Man is a pleasure. It’s fun, occasionally clever, and at its center is a great performance from Charlton Heston in his prime; all big teeth, bravado, and occasional shirtlessness. It’s also goofy, dated, and sports a script chock-full of more one-liners than two Roger Moore Bond movies combined. Still, those things are part of what gives the movie its charm. I’ve categorized The Omega Man as a Guilty Pleasure, but I suppose that’s not entirely true. There’s no guilt involved in my love. But it’s also not as simple as “like” or “dislike”. It’s a movie that I embrace both ironically and unironically. I enjoy the things that work and the things that don’t work. Occasionally, they’re the same thing.
I recently discovered that director Tim Burton is also a big fan of The Omega Man, and speaking to MOMA in 2009, he said, “If I was alone on a desert island I’d probably pick something that I could relate to – probably The Omega Man with Charlton Heston. I don’t know why that is one of my favorite movies, but it is.”
I couldn’t have said it any better. I love The Omega Man – I’m just not entirely sure why.
The Omega Man is currently ranked #207 out of 1067 movies on my Flickchart. I’m thinking it should be higher. Or lower; it’s that kind of movie.