Monday, November 30, 2009

Monday Movie Review: The Omega Man

The Omega Man (1971) 8/10
Robert Neville (Charlton Heston) is the only survivor of biological war. With the world dying of plague, Neville developed a vaccine too late; and only he was treated. Everyone else is dead or mutated into vampire-like creatures lead by Matthias (Anthony Zerbe) that are blinded by daylight.

Giving a numeric rating to a cult classic is kind of a fool's game. You know there's a cheese factor, you know there are things that are overblown, and yet that's part of its charm. I like to take my movies seriously, and I seriously think that Omega Man is a terrific movie, but there are definitely major flaws.

For one thing, the soundtrack is horrific. It's a nightmare of seventies-style sweetness. At one point, Neville plays Theme from a Summer Place on the radio, and that's pretty much the tone of the whole thing, including during the scary, horror, and action sequences. The soundtrack actively works against any tension the movie successfully builds (which is considerable). The other major flaw is the direction of the action sequences. Whether it's a car chase or a fist fight, it's very staged and posed and transparent; groan-worthy.

And yes, Omega Man is overblown. It sells its message too hard, and paints its metaphors with too broad a brush. But given the moody atmospherics, the intensity of the last-man-on-Earth scenario, and a powerful flow of events, I really don't mind the broad brush.

Lots of people criticize Charlton Heston's acting, but he holds the screen like a magnet. It requires something special to be alone on screen, babbling to your household objects, and retain audience interest. Heston's dynamic presence makes it work. Is Neville crazy or just lonely? We are never sure, but neither is he, and that makes him sympathetic. It turns out, of course, that Neville is not the last man on Earth, and his vulnerability in the sudden presence of people after years alone is touching.

Matthias, we learn, is a former news reporter watching the plague unfold and reporting on it. Gradually, he comes to hate the technology that is destroying the world, and before succumbing, he has already turned his news broadcasts into polemics. Now, he is the cult leader of the mutant victims, called "the Family," they celebrate the scars on their skin as cleansing them of the world's sin. All this is very over the top, which, let's face it, is what you want when you cast Anthony Zerbe. The Family is a mishmash that serves to criticize witch hunts, superstition, religious fervor, and anti-science bias, but the reality is that science did destroy the world. The Family is vile, monstrous, and not entirely wrong.

This is all very juicy stuff; our lone heroic survivor paints an iconic figure even before the messianic metaphors start flying. Visuals of an empty and abandoned Los Angeles are stunning, and paint a sharp contrast with Neville's home, fully of knick-knacks, art, science, and luxury. My overall assessment is that Omega Man absolutely earns its cult status.

(Last cross-post on Earth)