When it comes to science fiction, I have always been more drawn to works that have a sense of realism to them. Do not get me wrong, I can appreciate ships that go into warp drive and sabers made of light just as much as the next guy. However, it is the fiction that is the most plausible, or at least seemingly so, that truly makes my mind race. This is one of the reasons why The Omega Man is another of the pleasant discoveries in this ongoing Blind Spot Series.
Based on Richard Matheson’s novel I Am Legend (remade again in 2007 starring Will Smith), Boris Sagal’s film is a cautionary tale of the evils that mankind can unleash on each other through our overreliance on science and technology. The film takes place in 1977, two years after the world’s population has been decimated as a result of the biological warfare between the Soviet Union and China. Thanks to an experimental vaccine Col. Robert Neville (Charlton Heston), a military scientist, is the last remaining human on earth…or so he thinks. Neville spends his days roaming the deserted streets of Los Angeles gathering supplies and trying his best to remain sane within the isolation. Although the loneliness plays tricks on his mind, it is far more tolerable then what occurs when the sun goes down.
It is when darkness hits that Neville receives a chilling reminder that he is not alone in this world. At night the streets belong to “The Family”, a group of nocturnal albino-looking mutants who are living examples of the horrors that can come of war. Led by Jonathan Matthias (Anthony Zerbe), a former news anchor who assumes the role of a prophet, The Family believe that God wants them to cleanse the world of all those whose scientific blasphemy destroyed it in the first place. The number one target on their list is Neville, who they have been unsuccessful in capturing during the past two years.
What makes The Omega Man such a chilling tale is not the pale creatures that lurk in the night, but what they represent. The notion of a biological warfare between nations is a fear that still feels very relevant today. The film’s scathing commentary on science and technology offers much for us to think about.
Another interesting element to the film is the way it looks at the divide between science and religion. Matthias sees himself, and The Family, as instruments of God. They renounce science and those who administer it. This is a stark contrast to Neville who represents the cold and unrelenting drive that comes with being a scientist. Though both men are vastly different in their beliefs, it is actually Neville who comes off as more Christ-like in the film. Matthias is content with keeping his people in their current mutated state, believing that it is the Lord’s will; Neville, on the other hand, is willing to sacrifice everything in hopes of saving both his new love Lisa (Rosalind Cash) and the world at large.
Though the commentary is still timely, there are aspects of The Omega Man that feel rather dated. This is most noticeable when observing the costume design of The Family. Showing mutations by having actors covered in white makeup, with a few facial scrapes, and wearing black robes seems a little silly by today’s standards. Also, Lisa’s black power stance, or at least the limited amount she displays before falling for Heston’s irresistible manliness, feels like an afterthought. Speaking of the relationship between Neville and Lisa, it is never clear what it is about Neville that Lisa finds so appealing. She starts off as a militant female but quickly becomes nothing more than arm candy when around Neville. Aspects like these give the film an unintentionally campy feel at times. Despite these moments, there is still plenty to enjoy in The Omega Man. It is a film that both entertains and provides a little food for thought too.
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