Up to now I haven’t touched on science fiction on this blog. The reason for that isn’t that I have any beef with the genre, rather that it tends to get plenty of attention elsewhere. The truth is I’m quite fond of sci-fi, at least the movies from the 50s through to the 70s, and watch a reasonable amount of it. One of my all time favourites in the genre has to be The Omega Man (1971), a film that’s not without its faults but whose strengths raise it up high. To the best of my knowledge, the story by Richard Matheson has been filmed three times now with The Omega Man being the second effort. It’s a movie very much of its time, but Charlton Heston’s central performance and a fantastic score by Ron Grainer power it on and help to divert attention from the weaknesses.
The story is pretty straightforward: a Sino-Russian conflict spreads westward and eventually engulfs the whole world, resulting in germ warfare that essentially wipes out humanity. The film opens with Robert Neville (Charlton Heston), a former army scientist, driving through a barren urban landscape. This scene, which never fails to give me goose bumps, has Neville cruising down deserted streets to the accompaniment of Percy Faith’s A Summer Place blasting out from the car stereo. For an instant, everything seems almost idyllic – but the illusion of an early morning spin in a still sleeping city is shattered violently as Neville stamps on the brakes and produces a machine pistol to rake the windows of a building where he’s just spotted a dark figure flitting silently by. From this point on it becomes clear what the real situation is; Neville is the last healthy human in a world of corpses and photo-sensitive mutants. The first three quarters of an hour are spent establishing the near hopeless situation Neville finds himself facing. He commands the city by day, hunting mutants and searching for their hive, but the nights belong to the black robed Family. It’s clear that the strain of his solitary existence and nights spent holed up in his fortress-like brownstone have begun to take their toll on Neville’s psychology. He spends his time conversing with himself and playing chess with a bust of Caesar, and he’s beginning to crack up. Were any person forced to live in such isolation and fend off regular night time assaults and taunts from the sinister Family, it’s not unreasonable that they’d start to imagine they could hear phones ringing and begin to question their own sanity. Neville has spent two long years ploughing this lonely furrow, until he catches a glimpse of what he thinks might be another normal human being. It’s only when a slip on his part leads to his being captured by the Family that he finds out he’s not as alone as he thought. That whole first half of the movie carefully builds up a picture of Neville’s world and the horror of living within it. The second part takes us in a new direction as we see him regain hope and perspective. The question is whether that new hope can be sustained, and the answer is left open when the movie reaches its conclusion with one of the most memorable (and touching) final shots and fade outs in cinema.
I started off by pointing out that The Omega Man is not without its faults, and I’ll try and address those first. The thing that will strike any modern audience is that this is a 70s movie, and proudly so. The imagery and many of the themes are rooted firmly in that decade. The problem is that this lends it an air of kitsch that may be off-putting to some. The presence of Rosalind Cash and Lincoln Kilpatrick results in a curious mix of jive talking blaxploitation and more serious questions about race relations, and they don’t really sit comfortably together in retrospect. However, that stuff is more a matter of personal taste and could be seen as part of the movie’s charm. A bigger issue is the Family (this is probably the main weakness of all three versions of the story) who never come across as threatening as they should. They do attain a cult-style creepiness, and their malice is never in question, but there’s also a slightly comical air about them – not helped by a hammy performance by Anthony Zerbe as their leader Matthias – that dilutes the danger somewhat. On the other hand, Heston’s take on Neville really anchors the picture. He does very well in the opening half when he basically has no one to play off and has to earn the viewers’ sympathy and support single handed. I thought he brought the right balance of tough resilience and increasing despondency to the role. The other major plus is a score by Ron Grainer that evokes the mood of both the story and the characters beautifully. I think it would be fair to say that Grainer’s music plays a significant part in ensuring the movie remains eminently watchable – this is probably among the best pieces of film composing the decade offered.
The Omega Man is one of the gradually increasing number of classic films that’s made it onto Blu-Ray. Having said that, I’ve yet to buy into the format myself (partly because of a lack of attractive titles but mainly because I’m satisfied enough with the quality of the DVDs I own – but that’s a discussion for another time) so I’ll confine myself to saying that I’ve no doubt the BD adds to the overall visual presentation. The old Warner DVD was one that never gave me any cause for complaint, with a strong and detailed anamorphic scope image. For me, the film is an old favourite whose failings can be easily ignored when there’s the pleasure of seeing Heston near his best and hearing Ron Grainer’s haunting melodies.