Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Omega Man

Richard Matheson's vampire novel I Am Legend has been adapted three times to the silver screen. The most recent was in 2007 with the Will Smith vehicle of the same name, the first was the Vincent Price-starring The Last Man on Earth (1964), and starring Charlton Heston, The Omega Man (1971). Each film carries the same premise: a lone scientist remains the last uninfected human after a plague transformed the rest of humanity into vampires, mutants, or CGI rejects from The Mummy. Matheson's work remains one of the greatest horror novels of the 20th century, a brilliant examination of how the social norms became flipped and how one man deals with the psychological burden of being totally alone. And it's scary. Regrettably, the same cannot be said for The Omega Man (or the other adaptations for that matter).

Colonel Robert Neville (Heston) is the last man alive in Los Angeles after biological warfare broke out on a global scale, but he is not alone. The Family, other survivors of the war who were mutated into light-fearing albinos under the leadership of former news broadcaster Matthias (Anthony Zerbe), believe science, technology, and other modern facets of society ended the world. Donning black robes, by night they burn books, destroy any remnants of the old society, and hunt Neville, the last living reminder of a failed civilization. By day, Neville hunts them and deals with his isolation. When he meets a group of infected survivors who aren't as far gone as the Family, Neville believes he can process a cure using his immune blood.

Why filmmakers purchase the rights to a vampire novel and then change the monsters from vampires to mutant albinos in robes, I have no idea. The whole point of I Am Legend is the normal and the supernatural had changed places. Vampires were now society, and humans were myth. Neville unknowingly had become the monster lurking in the shadows, the tale told to frighten vampires. Vampires have a long cinematic history and an even longer literary tradition; many cultures around the world have folk tales involving vampire or vampire-like creatures. Changing the creatures from vampires to generic mutants loses that lineage, and thus the theme of the novel is lost.

Early on in the film, we get some effective shots of Neville driving and walking through a deserted, post-apocalyptic Los Angeles, but this aspect of the film is not explored in depth enough. Neville gets into a fights with the mutants, has a few flashbacks to his time as a scientist trying to stop the plague, and makes wisecracks to a bust of Julius Caesar. The true sense of isolation and loneliness is only there for a few instances, like when Neville spots the calendar of a pinup, finds himself surrounded my mannequins, or goes to the theater to watch Woodstock. It isn't long before Neville is captured by the family and rescued by the other survivors.

The other human survivors aren't very compelling, and two of them, including the love interest, engage in groan-inducing, stupid behavior. The Family fares better. Sure, they look kind of campy and silly, but they have their interest. The idea of Matthias, who in a way brought the Gospel of modernity through television, is now a rabid fanatic who preaches to a cult against technology is an interesting substitute for the novel's original subtext. It's the final battle between science and faith to a certain degree. The Family has the convictions of its beliefs, and they believe they will purge the world of evil by killing Neville. The mutants aren't particularly frightening though but are suitably Gothic, and to the movie's credit, it has a number of exciting action scenes.

The Omega Man is fun enough as a sci action movie, but as an adaptation of Matheson's work, it's disappointing. By jettisoning the vampires, the movie dates itself to the early 70s and really doesn't bother with the novel's deeper ideas. Still, it at least inspired one of my favorite Simpsons Treehouse of Horror episodes: "The Homega Man."

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