Charlton Heston was made to be in historical epics, you pick the era. I'm going to amend that very broad statement to say that Heston was made to be in BIG movies, regardless the genre. Along with historical epics, he starred in westerns, disaster movies, and also science fiction like Planet of the Apes, Soylent Green, and 1971's The Omega Man.
This 1971 sci-fi movie is the second of three incarnations of Richard Matheson's classic novel I Am Legend, coming after The Last Man on Earth starring Vincent Price and followed almost 40 years later by Will Smith in I Am Legend. The novel is a classic and one of my all-time favorite books, and in one way or another the movies have put their own spin on the story. Why they decided they needed to do that I'll never know. The premise of being the last surviving human on Earth is a great jumping off point with all sorts of possibilities.
Germ warfare has wiped out mankind, killing millions and turning any of the few survivors into mutants who are blinded by light and only come out during the night hours. For the two years since the plague hit, Robert Neville (Heston) has survived on his own in a fortified house in Los Angeles believing he is the last man on Earth. He spends days looking for supplies in the abandoned city, anything that will help him survive. Neville's searches are limited to the daytime though because a group of mutants called the Family, led by a man named Matthias (Anthony Zerbe), comes out at night with the intent to capture and kill Neville. The doctor soon finds out he's not alone when he meets Lisa (Rosalind Cash) and Dutch (Paul Koslo) leading a small group of children. Neville discovers the cure to bringing humans back may be in his own blood, but can he figure it out before Matthias finally captures him?
Seeing a role like this must make actors happy; no rivals for screentime, long stretches of monologues, and basically a movie all to themselves. For the first 50 minutes -- when The Omega Man is at its best -- that's what Heston gets to do. This may be his best acting role in a career of great parts. He brings Neville to life, showing what two years living by yourself in an empty world would do to someone's psyche. He goes to the movies and recites them line for line, he plays chess with a Julius Caesar headpiece, and spends much of the days talking to himself. At other times, Neville is sane, trying to figure out how to develop a serum to reverse the affects of the plague and germ warfare -- which he is already immune to.
Like 2008's I Am Legend though, The Omega Man isn't content to let the story be about the last man on Earth. The best parts are Neville exploring the city (in some great shots of a vacant L.A.) looking for anything of value while trying to keep his sanity during the day and fighting for his life at night. Then unfortunately, new characters are introduced. Cash is doing her best Black Power Foxy Brown impression -- and not a good one at that. Is a romantic subplot really needed in a story like this? There is this great storyline with all these possibilities to deal with, but instead we get Neville schmoozing with Cash's Lisa all so we get some gratuitous 70s nudity (Cash thankfully, not Heston).
Because of the detour in the story, the last 40 minutes can't live up to the strengths of the first hour. That's not to say it's not an interesting ending, but Heston so dominates his time that when other characters are introduced, his Neville somehow gets lost in the shuffle. The movie is at its best when it stick to Matheson's novel and slows down when it drifts away from the source. Too bad because Zerbe (as always) is a fine villain as he leads the Family, a small army of albino mutants wearing monk-like hoodies and sunglasses. The movie has the look of a low budget flick but in a good, campy way. Some of the movie was shot in L.A. while other scenes are clearly on an outdoor set.
The movie does have a lot going for it though, in spite of those already mentioned flaws. Along with Heston and Zerbe, Koslo is strong in a supporting role as Dutch, a brilliant student of medicine now left behind to help the human race survive as the leader of a group of children. Some exciting action scenes blend well with the story, including one escape via motorcycle through Dodger Stadium with mutants all around. The ending sticks pretty close to the novel's ending, and although the final shot is a little heavy-handed (no subtlety here) it works in its symbolism. Composer Ron Grainer's score is solid too (sample HERE), a nice blend of a lot of different musical types ranging from jazz to classical to a few parts that sounded like they were from a spaghetti western.
A good, not great sci-fi movie, that could have been better. Definitely check out Matheson's novel I Am Legend, it's a cant-miss book. The Omega Man is a good companion to the book, and even with the changes that have been made, the heart of the story and the main ideas are there.
The Omega Man <----trailer (1971): ***/****