Monday, July 29, 2013

The Omega Man (review) 70's Sci-Fi Week

Spoiler: I review neither of these.
I've been on a 70's sci-fi binge recently and figured I should share what I found. As a child who grew up with Star Wars (and, to a lesser extent, Star Trek) sci-fi has always had a special place in my heart. Imagining where society will be in the future is both enjoyable on a pure fantasy level and also has a way of revealing current cultural issues and ideological tensions other genres lack (of course I'm not doing contemporary sci-fi, so, whatever). Special effects in the 70's were in the process of evolving into their contemporary counterparts, and there's something entertaining for me watching movies struggle to find a balance between hilarious costumes and clunky dialogue on the one hand and detailed sets and occasionally convincing work with models on the other. And of course the green screen. The wonderful, wonderful green screen.

So yeah. I have 7 70's sci-fi reviews for you of movies you'd typically find on those Top 10 style lists the internet seems to have an insatiable desire for (I even discovered two of them through these vile lists). While I don't want to rank these from best to worst (especially since I'm leaving out some of the absolute best 70's sci-fi like Star Wars and Alien) they will appear in approximately reverse order of how much I liked them. The reviews will be organized by sub-genre: Monday (today) and Tuesday will be post-apocalyptic, Thursday and Friday will be space adventure with the Wednesday review as a sort of bridge between these two styles, and then Saturday and Sunday will be absurd and surreal. Let's get started!


I can't get over how much this really does not look like Charlton Heston.

The Omega Man is the second adaptation of Richard Matheson's book I Am Legend (the first being 1964's The Last Man on Earth and the third being 2007's I Am Legend) and is the oldest of the films I'll be reviewing for this series (1971). In the future biological warfare has eliminated the vast majority of the population leaving the one man immune to the plague (Neville, played by Charlton Heston) roaming the streets of Los Angeles all by his lonesome. As the movie's tagline tell us, however, "the last man alive is not alone": at night a plague-resistant, cult-like community called The Family come out and try to kill Heston. The problem is that they're allergic to bright lights so they can't come out during the day or enter Heston's well-lit abode, and they're allergic to technology so they can't (or won't) just shoot him through his window.

Heston is on a mission during the day to find The Family's "nest" where they hide until the sun goes down, presumably so he can kill them all. On one such excursion he encounters Rosalind Cash (Lisa) who initially runs away but later comes back to save Heston after he's captured by The Family. Cash takes Heston back to her place where there are more survivors, but they're not immune like Heston and are slowly succumbing to the plague. Heston attempts to synthesize an antidote, but in the meantime the efforts of The Family are becoming more and more intense. Some of the twists towards the end are a little weird (not in an unreal way, just sort of "where did that come from?" type stuff) and while the ending itself makes sense I almost get the feeling the writers didn't really know how they wanted to get to it.

So first things first: how well does this stand up to a modern audience? As post-apocalyptic sci-fi this is about as straight as you can play it. There aren't a whole lot of special effects partly because it takes place on earth in a not-too-distant future. The costumes are a little bit funky at times (Heston "dresses up" on Sundays and what he wears is pretty priceless) but more because it was the 70's and people dressed differently than "it's the future and we wear crazy things". The dialogue is pretty tame with very little of the awkwardness sci-fi of this era can fall prone to. All in all, this is probably the least science-fictiony of the films I'll be reviewing this week. That, unfortunately, is not really a good thing.

That little speck in the middle of the shot is Heston.

In general I thought the first half of the movie was executed much better than the second. The first half does a lot of things right, one of which is the feeling of emptiness in the city (pictured above). This is something I haven't seen executed so well since the last time I saw the empty London scenes in 28 Days Later. Along with this is the feeling of Neville's loneliness. Not only does he talk to people who aren't there and play chess with a bust of Ceasar, there's also a great scene where he imagines that there's a phone ringing that was maybe the best part of the movie for me because of both its originality and its thematic relevance. The second half of the movie completely loses this sense of hopelessness, which is probably because Neville regains some of his hope when he meets Lisa. The problem for me was it felt more like an abrupt switch than a journey which didn't work very well for me.

The first half of the movie also features extreme attention to detail which, perhaps due to the amount of characters in the respective halves, is to be expected. There's just a great scene when Neville comes home at night and prepares his fortress of a house for the nighttime. Also, as with many older movies it has a more minimal soundtrack than we're used to from today's big budget hits, so the movie can feel slow or labored at times especially in the second part when the minimalism stops working towards the sense of Neville's isolation. Where there is music it's pretty solid though. As for the acting, Charlton Heston is amazing (which is important since he's alone a lot, but not necessarily surprising) and Rosalind Cash plays a wonderful, strong character with only a small hint of the sexy, exotic, black woman stereotype.

There's a brief scene towards the beginning where Heston goes to the movies and watches Woodstock. A lot of attention is paid to some scenes from the movie interviewing concert-goers who discuss their anxieties regarding everybody getting along and the general state of society. Hippy nonsense aside, the movie seems to take it pretty seriously which offers a possible reading of the movie I'm not terribly invested in but I thought I'd share it anyway. With these highlights from Woodstock as the background for the movie, The Omega Man could be saying that we already live in the world that Charlton Heston lives in. The people around us basically don't exist because we either only interact with them in very sort of scripted ways (like when Heston talks to the nonexistent salesman) or we just don't interact with them at all. The exception here is The Family, people with different ideological views from our own (they hate technology & science, he's a scientist), so that the only people that exist for us aside from the few we love (Lisa and friends) are our ideological enemies. So, yeah. Make of that what you will.

Iconic scene is iconic

So there's one major issue with this film, and it's not even a very big deal for me since I haven't read the book but it interests me because it concerns ideology (I spoil the ending here though, so consider yourself warned). In one of his books (I forget which one but you can find some of it online here) Slavoj Zizek discusses the differences between the original book I Am Legend and all three of the film adaptations with regard to how they regress ideologically. In the original book, Neville realizes that his hunting of the enemy (they're like vampire zombies or something) has turned him into what he hated most. This element is lost in The Omega Man and replaced with its opposite: Neville makes an antidote and becomes a hero. Here's Zizek:

Neville finally realizes why the new society of the living infected regards him as a monster: just as vampires were regarded as legendary monsters that preyed on the vulnerable humans in their beds, Neville has become a mythical figure that kills both vampires and the infected living while they are sleeping. He is a legend as the vampires once were… The first film version main difference with the novel is a shift in the ending: the hero (here called Morgan) develops in his lab a cure for Ruth; a few hours later, at nightfall, the still living people attack Morgan, who flees, but is finally gunned down in the church where his wife has been buried...
The gradual ideological regression can be observed here at its clinical purest. The main shift (between first and second cinema version) is registered in the radical change in the meaning of the title: the original paradox (the hero is now the legend for vampires, as once vampires were for humanity) gets lost, so that, in the last version, the hero is simply the legend for the surviving humans in Vermont. What gets obliterated in this change is the authentically “multicultural” experience rendered by the title’s original meaning, the experience of how one’s own tradition is no better than what appears to us as the “eccentric” traditions of others... The irony is that this dimension disappears precisely in our era in which multicultural tolerance is elevated into official ideology.



2 comments:

  1. I've read the book 'I Am Legend' and it didn't have what I would call movie potential. The Will Smith adaptation transformed things very well. I haven't seen the other adaptations - though I have hesitated buying 'The Omega Man'. Just seems dated, and while I enjoyed the book for Neville's little adventures, three movie adaptations is baffling.

    With your analysis, you suggested that we're basically alone when we walk the streets for instance, because we don't really interact. Seems like something out of 'American Psycho', something true. Thanks!

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    1. No, thank you Dan!

      The comparison to American Psycho (tied for my favorite work of contemporary fiction) is really cool and not something I'd thought of. Interesting that one (Omega Man) was made in the 70's and the other (American Psycho) is about the 70's. I think American Psycho is much deeper in this regard, but you're definitely right that the analogy is there. Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts!

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