The Omega Man
*/**** Image A- Sound B Extras D
starring Charlton Heston, Anthony Zerbe, Rosalind Cash
screenplay by John William Corrington and Joyce H. Corrington, based on the novel I Am Legend by Richard Matheson
directed by Boris Sagal
by Walter Chaw Its dialogue and score at constant war with the tickle of poignancy threatening to justify The Ωmega Man's cult status, Boris Sagal's at times astonishingly awful adaptation of Richard Matheson's classic short novel I Am Legend is some kind of weird hippie elegy spiced with a few disturbing religious images and a lot of casual racism. The idea that Matheson's vampires are now black-hooded (monastic and judicial) albino mutants living in an abandoned civic building, representative of not a new order but the oppressive old, is too clearly a lament for the doom of the flower-power generation. Frankly, the image of broken-down hippies trying to plant seeds in blasted earth in the middle of Easy Rider said it all with more elegance and brevity.
After two years of relative isolation, Neville encounters a commune of survivors headed up by saucy Lisa (Rosalind Cash), the prototype for the Pam Grier blaxploitation heroines and some sort of space alien who delivers her every line with a convincing lack of life. After a passionate night of the love that dare not speak its name, Lisa dreams of a river full of fish, to which Neville cracks wise, "Where did you ever see a river in Harlem?" Not funny anyway, Neville's presumption that Lisa is from Harlem (the film is set in L.A., you see) is the sort of racial shorthand that locates all Arabs in Baghdad, all Asians in Shanghai, and all Caucasians in Appalachia. Earlier, the only black member of The Family refers to Neville's stronghold as "that Honky Paradise"--later, this same character breaks the Amish dictums of the cult by packing heat. No surprise that he pays the ultimate price, while Lisa and young black man Richie (Eric Laneuville) are saved by an injection of Neville's life-giving plasma. Insulting at best, the picture appears dedicated to undermining the goodwill wrought by its interracial coupling. Disturbingly, we haven't really come all that far from this, it's just that The Ωmega Man is less cunning about its presentation.
Neville is in the Christ-posture throughout, his spilt blood the salvation of mankind, a spear in his side, a grail catching his vitreous humours, arms outstretched in hollow emulation of someone else's crucifixion... It's not the obviousness of The Ωmega Man that grates, but the indecisiveness of its presentation--the shakiness of its premise ultimately obscuring its message. The middle film of Heston's sci-fi trilogy (preceded by Planet of the Apes, followed by Soylent Green), The Ωmega Man is easily the biggest dud in terms of scripting, scoring (composer Ron Grainer, like Sagal, spent most of his career in television), internal cohesion, and thematic tightness. It may seem nitpicking to note that a harangue by Matthias about the evils of "the wheel" is preceded by the dramatic wheeling in of a giant catapult, The Family's secret weapon--but it's not nitpicking, because it doesn't take a particularly observant person to note the discrepancy. It isn't the datedness of the picture (films like Silent Running, Logan's Run, and Heston's other two sci-fi operas are dated, too, after all), it's the slackness of it. All the pretentious nothings of the piece spill over into a rather low opinion of its audience.
A relic of its time and a little sad for it, The Ωmega Man arrives on DVD in a roomy 2.35:1 anamorphic video transfer that preserves the Panavision dimensions of the film's native source. Sadly, Sagal is weaned imperfectly of the small screen, leading to a series of compositions that could be panned-and-scanned without much loss of important visual information. A few wide shots of abandoned La La Land benefit most from the letterboxing, which, aside from a little "filmic" graininess now and again, looks remarkably good for a picture pushing 33 years of age. The Dolby 1.0 mono audio track is notable for its clarity and its sadistic fidelity in assaulting us with Grainer's score and the finer points of John and Joyce Corrington's legendarily awful screenplay. Interesting to note, by the by, two ironic convergences: the first morbid in that Sagal, later killed in a helicopter crash, filmed a rather detailed helicopter crash for this picture; the second probably intentional in the homage paid The Ωmega Man by Matt Groening's "Futurama" and its legion of black-hooded CHUD mutants, of which Leela, voiced by Sagal's daughter Katey, is the most successful exile.
The disc provides a few mildly interesting special features, beginning with a brief "introduction" to the film by actors Laneuville and Paul Koslo and screenwriter Joyce Corrington that plays like a B-roll promo doc three decades after the fact. Corrington is the most grating in her assiduous listing of her résumé: "I have a Ph.D. in Chemistry and my husband had a Ph.D. in English, so Neville is a distillation of both of us," and, "I must say it was my idea to make [Lisa] black--you see, I was teaching at a black college back then." Yet for all her self-congratulation, the fact remains that when you approach an interracial love story as the main conflict of your piece--no matter the time (and I indict, here, the pabulum of Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?--the answer to which is "an accountant, apparently"), you're engaged in a sort of paternalistic racism that can't help but offend. More, her offhand dismissal of Matheson's source material, already evident in the base product, is reiterated here with a callous arrogance that speaks more to Corrington's intelligence than her proudly-worn post-grad ever could. Probably realizing that they had something uniquely unsavoury here with Corrington (and fawningly useless in Koslo/Laneuville), Warner wisely decided against enlisting them for a full-length commentary track; at four minutes, the piece is already too long, truth be told.
A contemporary making-of called "The Last Man Alive" (10 mins.) refers to "The Family" as "The Others"--cementing the peculiar racial aspect of the film. Also on board is an "essay," "Charlton Heston - Science-Fiction Legend," that amounts to about five scrollable pages of poorly-written and uninformative text, while a nicely put-together theatrical trailer and cast & crew filmographies round out the platter. Originally published: September 1, 2003.
98 minutes; PG; 2.35:1 (16x9-enhanced); English DD 1.0, French DD 1.0; CC; English, French, Spanish subtitles; DVD-9; Region One; Warner