In 1977, two years after Russia and China had engaged in germ warfare and destroying most of mankind, U. S. Army scientist Robert Neville, who had immunized himself, is practically alone in the city of Los Angeles, except for a group of albino-like survivors, led by a former newscaster, now calling himself Matthias, who had predicted the destruction, His group , sensitive to light and heat, are bent upon smashing all remnants of the prior civilization, especially Neville.
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After the United States' use of the atomic bomb on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II, and with the nuclear arms race heating up between America and the Soviet Union, science fiction films and novels in the 1950s seemed to become obsessed with the end-of-the-world scenarios.Films like War of the Worlds (1953), predicted destruction coming from external forces; Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), forecasted it coming from internal disintegration. In 1954, Richard Matheson wrote the novel “I Am Legend”, the story of the last man on Earth fighting for survival after a deadly virus kills almost all humans and turns the survivors into vampires. “I Am Legend” was adapted to film three times – The Last Man on Earth (1964) starring Vincent Price; The Omega Man (1971) starring Charlton Heston; and most recently, I Am Legend (2007) with Will Smith.
In The Omega Man, Robert Neville, played by Heston, survives a germ war that infects the entire planet by injecting himself with an experimental vaccine, while other survivors turn into cultist mutants, known as The Family, who reject all that came before as the cause of the ultimate destruction of the world. Believing that he is the only one to escape becoming a mutant, Neville spends his days roaming the isolated streets looking for members of The Family to kill, and his nights being taunted by them outside his barricaded home. It is not until Neville is captured and nearly killed that other human survivors save him, giving him hope for the future of the human race.
He recognizes that he is the true villain of the story, not the vampires, and he will go down as a legendary figure in their society for all of the destruction he caused, hence the title of the novel. In The Omega Man, however, while the mutants are still intelligent, the film goes out of its way to portray Neville as a hero, instead of the misguided anti-hero he was in the novel. Not only do the filmmakers make Neville’s blood the cure for the disease but, when he is ultimately killed, he is shown in the same pose as Jesus Christ on the cross, while the other human survivors drive away with the cure he has supplied them – a not so subtle way of showing him as the savior of humanity. This ending is not only ham-handed, it virtually changes the entire meaning of the story.
Some elements of The Omega Man are extremely dated. For example, when Neville comes across another non-mutant, she is an African-American woman, played by Rosalind Cash, who is more of a stereotypical representation of the Black Power Movement than an actual character. In fact, none of the characters are fleshed out enough for the audience to really even care about their eventual fates. Heston, never the subtlest of actors, is miscast as Neville; he is too old for the part, and it is especially off-putting to see him in love scenes with Cash, who is fifteen years his junior. Despite being surrounded by mutants, who throw fireballs into his house, Heston never portrays Neville as being in any real danger, which robs the movie of any suspense. Another actor, perhaps one not known for playing larger than life heroes, might have been able to give a more nuanced performance thus allowing the audience to better identify with Neville.
Heston, most famous for his epic parts in movies like The Ten Commandments (1956), and his Oscar-winning role in Ben-Hur (1959), had a surprisingly successful run as a science fiction actor beginning with Planet of the Apes (1968). He followed that iconic film with The Omega Man, and then with Soylent Green (1973), forming almost a trilogy of post-apocalyptic science fiction films.
The Omega Man is not a particularly good movie; the acting is over-the-top, the make-up and score are cheesy, and the ending is hammy. By the same token, it is these same elements that make the movie so much fun to watch and have helped turn it into a cult classic since its release over thirty-five years ago.