Viking Night: Omega Man
By Bruce Hall
March 29, 2016
The Omega Man is famously adapted from Richard Matheson's I am Legend, which is the kind of thing you're legally required to say when you review a film adaptation of a book. On the one hand, it's a dusting of instant credibility at the beginning of your article. Ooh, he reads books! Clearly this makes his opinions on movies more valid! Then again, you know that guy who always needs to be heard loudly proclaiming how much better the book was, because he constantly needs the approval and validation of others?
Yeah, I hate that guy. So I will tell you up front that I haven't read the book, and I'm secure enough not to mind your knowing that. Just know that the setup for the film differs slightly, but it involves biological warfare between Russia and China wiping out virtually all of humanity. Now, there's nothing for Charlton Heston to do but grab a rifle and tool around the deserted streets of LA in a stolen car, casually shooting at shadows in the windows of abandoned buildings. It's a cool way to start a film, and there aren't many people who look cooler doing it.
By the way, is it okay if I also admit to not being a big Heston guy? I like him, but I find his acting style to be uncomfortably self-aware. Almost every character he ever played knew millions of people were just dying for him to get out of his shirt and punch someone. Dr. Robert Neville is just such a man, and yes - he DOES spend about half the movie shirtless and punching people. Neville is a former military biologist who may be humanity's last survivor, but you'll be glad to know he still knows how to have a good time, and that's where our story starts.
One of the things I like best about the post-Apocalypse genre is that I'm invariably compelled to wonder how I might behave in a similar situation. I therefore found comfort in the fact that Neville spends his time getting drunk, shooting guns, stealing cars and sitting in movie theaters with his feet up. There's actually a poignancy to this, as Neville watches his umpteenth screening of Woodstock, transfixed by the sea of humanity and able to wistfully recite the dialog from memory. Something we'd all take for granted on any other day means everything during the apocalypse. It's a lovely sentiment.
In fact, the year before this movie came out, a documentary on Woodstock had become a huge cultural phenomenon. It's already a nice moment, and at the time I'm sure the added cultural significance made it more resonant. The problem is to a casual viewer that almost a half century later, and stripped of its contemporary context, The Omega Man feels like a really quaint and even slightly self referential piece of allegorical storytelling. The first few minutes of the film are a gun-toting Heston grinning like a tourist, purposely delivering a combination of expositional wisecracks and designed to highlight the two years his character has spent on his own.