Robert Neville, a doctor,due to an experimental vaccine, is the only survivor of an apocalyptic war waged with biological weapons. The plague caused by the war has killed everyone else except for a few hundred deformed, nocturnal people calling themselves "The Family". The plague has caused them to become sensitive to light, as well as homicidally psychotic. They believe science and technology to be the cause of the war and their punishment, and Neville, as the last symbol of science, the old world, and a "user of the wheel", must die. Neville, using electricty, machinery, and science attempts to hold them at bay.
Directed by: Boris Sagal
. Starring: Charlton Heston
, Anthony Zerbe
, Rosalind Cash
, Paul Koslo
, Eric Laneuville
, Lincoln Kilpatrick
, Jill Giraldi
, Anna Aries
, Brian Tochi
, DeVeren Bookwalter
, John Dierkes
, Monika Henreid
, Linda Redfearn
. Music by: Ron Grainer
A plague has wiped out humanity, killing most and mutating others into creatures of the night. In a now empty city, there is one man who has survived uninfected and must go on surviving while holding onto to both his sanity and his life. That is the premise of The Omega Man, the 1971 adaptation of Richard Matheson's seminal science fiction novel I Am Legend. But what has made the film stand the test of time to the point that it has become something of a cult classic over the last forty plus years?
Due to its premise, the film rest heavily on the strength of the performance of lead actor Charlton Heston. Heston makes a believable "last man on Earth" as Neville, a former scientist and military man who came up with an experimental vaccine against a bio-weapon turned plague, struggles to keep his sanity between sheer loneliness and the threat of his fellow "survivors" who wish his destruction. The script gives Heston plenty to work from "action hero" moments to comedic moments (such as a scene in a used car dealership early on) and even some fleeting touching moments as well. Indeed, his performance also helps to make some of the films cheesier lines and moments seem believable. Heston as Neville more or less carries half of the film (and more especially the opening fifteen to twenty minutes) by himself and he never fails to keep the viewer engaged and interested in what is happening.
But thanks to the supporting cast, the film proves its tagline of "the last man alive...is not alone!" Leading it as it were is Anthony Zerbe as Matthias, a former TV anchorman turned leader of the group of mutated, nocturnal albino like plague survivors called "The Family" who seek to destroy Neville. Zerbe's performance is oddly compelling, almost theatrical at times, as he plays the role of a crazed cult leader to the hilt. Playing the proverbial "omega woman" is Rosalind Cash as Lisa, though her performance is very much hampered by the fact that the script makes her into a "Black Power" caricature and as result has become incredibly dated. Much the same can be said of the performances of Eric Laneuville as Richie and Lincoln Kilpatrick as Zachary. The results then are mixed but, despite the dating of some performances, they help to keep the film moving and interesting.
The film also features some strong production values for its time as well. In particular, there are some highly effective shots of an emptied out Los Angeles done decades before CGI made it much easier to accomplish. Those shots are put to special use during the film's first half and, along with stock footage and a few scenes in a flashback depicting the plague, help to firmly place the viewer into the film's world (which being the 1970s might well date the film in some eyes but certainly not mine). While the makeup used for The Family might not be up to 21st century standards, it is surprisingly effective especially in a reveal about midway through. Then there's the score from British composer Ron Grainer which mixes a whole bunch of styles together both for better and worse but, given that Grainer was the composer behind such TV themes such as Doctor Who and The Prisoner, it's a score that is memorable if at times for the wrong reasons.
Yet the thing that perhaps stands out most about the film, along with Heston's performance, is its script. Writers John William Corrington and Joyce H. Corrington loosely adapted Richard Matheson's seminal science fiction novel I Am Legend and updated it somewhat for the early 1970s. For those who know the source material, there are many differences (such as the fact that Matheson's novel was a vampire story done in a science fiction context which, by Joyce H. Corrington's own admission on a DVD special feature, was something they dumped very quickly) but also some things brought from the novel into the film as well. The film then takes the bare bones of Matheson's novel, adding some action sequences, and very much does its own thing.
The results of that are compelling. There are some fascinating subtexts going on in the film such as Neville's struggle to preserve a last vestige of civilization against the barbaric, nocturnal albino Family who see the world as it was, and therefore Neville, as evil (as Matthias describes Neville at one point: "One creature, caught. Caught in a place he cannot stir from in the dark, alone, outnumbered hundreds to one, nothing to live for but his memories, nothing to live with but his gadgets, his cars, his guns, gimmicks... and yet the whole family can't bring him down...") There's also an interesting quasi-Biblical subtext going on as well that becomes almost blatantly obvious at times during the back half of the film and especially in its final scene (this was an element that the much later adaptation of Matheson's novel starring Will Smith used quite heavily). That all being said parts of the script, like the film as a whole, have also dated horribly especially its African-American characters and some of its dialogue, something that as noted above hampers a few of the performances. For those faults though it is the script, both in its events and thematic, that makes the film compelling and entertaining.
In the final analysis, The Omega Man then is an interesting film that has earned a cult status. Like many films after four decades it has become dated and cheesy in places. Yet the performance of Charlton Heston and its script, with its very loose adaptation of a classic sci-fi novel combined with some compelling subtexts, has also given it the ability to stand the test of time. The result, mixed though those are at times, is ninety-eight entertaining and at times thought provoking, minutes.
Review by Matthew Kresal from the Internet Movie Database.