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The Omega Man

Year: 1971   Company: Warner Brothers   Runtime: 98′
Director: Boris Sagal   Writers: John William Corringtom, Joyce Hooper Corringtom
Cinematography: Russell Metty   Music: Ron Grainer   Cast: Charlton Heston, Anthony Zerbe, Rosalind Cash,
Paul Koslo, Eeric Laneuville, Lincoln Kilpatrick, Jill Giraldi, Brian Tochi, DeVeren Bookwalter, John Dierkes
Disc company: Warner Brothers   Video: 1080p 2.39:1    Audio: Dolby Digital 1.0 English, Dolby Digital 1.0 French, Dolby Digital 1.0 Spanish, Dolby Digital 1.0 German, Dolby Digital 1.0 Italian, Dolby Digital 1.0 Castellano
Subtitles: English, English SDH, French, German, German SDH, Italian, Italian SDH, Castellano, Dutch, Korean, Spanish, Portuguese (Brazil), Portuguese, Danish, Finnish, Norsk, Swedish   Disc: BD25 (All Region)
Release Date: 12/18/2007   Available for order this disc now through

There have been no small number of film adaptations, legitimate and otherwise, of Richard Matheson’s 1954 science fiction horror novel I Am Legend, from the stark Italian-American co-production The Last Man on Earth in 1964 to the dreadful Will Smith vehicle of a few years past, but this Walter Seltzer (Soylent Green) production from 1971 may be my favorite even as it takes considerable liberties with the source.  Charlton Heston is as big as ever as the requisite last man, the survivor of a modern plague that has decimated the world’s population and left civilization in ruin, but as the tagline is quick to point out, “The last man alive… is not alone!”

Set in the (then) near future of the late ’70s, The Omega Man follows doctor and colonel Robert Neville as he fights for survival in Los Angeles after biological warfare between the Soviet Union and China brings a swift conclusion to most human life.  Immune to the lethal biological agent thanks to the chance success of an experimental vaccine, Neville spends his evenings fending off the nightly sieges of the Family – a cult of plague survivors led by former news anchor Matthias (Anthony Zerbe, Papillon) who were forced into a life of darkness after their disease rendered them hypersensitive to light. Neville dedicates himself to exterminating The Family until he happens upon fellow survivor Lisa (Rosalind Cash, Cornbread, Earl and Me), and with her a hope for saving humankind…

Husband and wife screenwriters John and Joyce Corrington (Battle For the Planet of the Apes) take the Matheson novel as a jumping off point, but seemingly little else, and stray from its narrative early and often.  The resilient everyman of the story is given a boost in stature that seems appropriate considering the actor who plays him.  The Robert Neville of the film is a former military scientist, a colonel / doctor with both the resourcefulness and the know-how to get by on his own after civilization crumbles around him.  The dichotomous nature of the character, half warrior, half healer, is an interesting one, even if the writers’ attempts to highlight it are all too obvious and too little is, in the end, made of it. For his part, Heston suits the role just fine, balancing Neville’s action-hero machismo (some have suggested that the ubiquitous action movie one-liner may have begun with The Omega Man, and Heston has plenty of them) with a bit of tragic humanity.  His science fiction performances are so often parodied that it’s easy to forget just how well he played them.

As with too many of the ‘last man’ pictures, The Omega Man unnecessarily complicates itself by bringing more survivors into the equation for the supposed sole survivor to contend with.  The purpose of the extra characters here is clear – to add an air of optimism to the otherwise depressing circumstances and to allow for Neville’s mid-film shift in priorities, from hunting down Matthias and his followers to working for a cure.  The latter development is culled straight from the earlier The Last Man on Earth adaptation, but used to a far less satisfying effect.  There the tragic inevitabilities of the narrative were allowed to play to their logical conclusion, while here the tragedy is squandered with a feel-good epilogue that just rings false.  That said, The Omega Man is never so absurd with its sentimentality as the more recent I Am Legend, which goes so far as to completely subvert the ironic intentions of its own title.

My two paragraphs of grievances aside, you may be surprised to find that I actually approve of most of what the screenwriters were going for with The Omega Man.  For starters, this is the only adaptation of the story that firmly establishes the part mankind plays in the plague.  In the novel the connection is more oblique, with the apocalyptic bacilli being spread by the fallout from a nuclear exchange, but here the responsibility is clear – the bug is of our own making, and it was our own malicious intent that allowed it to spread.  A flashback montage early in the film is quite effective given its obvious frugality, with newscaster Matthias narrating the world’s demise over stock footage of explosions and new takes of extras succumbing to the dreadful disease.

Oddly, its the most notable discrepancy between novel and film that help the latter to be as effective as it is.  Seeking to ground the film in the more believable, the Corringtons rewrote Matheson’s scientific vampires as a devout religious cult called the Family (a nod to the Manson Family).  Clearly inspired by the Brotherhood of Flagellants that rose to prominence during the time of the Black Death, the family don sunglasses and hoods and categorically reject modern technology, mankind’s blind embracing of which they see as responsible for bringing about God’s judgement (the plague) and their own position as chosen survivors.  Their quest is to purify the world by fire, destroying all that remains of the old world and its ‘cursed’ knowledge, including Robert Neville – a man who remains a man and is, therefore, damned.  The make-up may be silly, powdered hair, crooked contacts and all, but the concept is sound – there’s nothing quite so frightening to a rational mind as the rise of a new apocalyptic fundamentalism – and Anthony Zerbe’s turn as Matthias is exceptional, regularly alternating between poetic fatalism and overt sinisterness.

A few production flaws (cars moving in the background of shots, the crew reflected in the Family’s sunglasses and so on) and narrative missteps aside, The Omega Man remains an effective, and now classic, piece of end-of-the-world cinema.  The direction by prolific television man Boris Sagal (The Thousand Plane Raid) is more than adept, and grounded in the sort of well-paced old-Hollywood style that keeps us from caring about the obvious artifices of its creation.  Add in an exceptional score by Ron Grainer (I dig the synth organ associated with the Family especially), composer for The Prisoner and Doctor Who, and you’ve got a rousing last-man yarn that’s too fun to hate, even in its lesser moments.

The Omega Man arrived on Blu-ray early on in the history of the format, back when Warner were releasing their high definition titles on both Blu-ray and HDDVD.  As such it’s not so technically adept as the format might allow for, but it gets the job done.  The 1080p VC-1 encoded transfer presents The Omega Man at its original Panavision ratio of 2.39:1 (quoted as 2.4:1 on the box) and, for my money, it looks pretty good.  The Technicolor photography makes the film look more expensive than it likely was, and the colorful production design really pops.  Contrast and detail are both sound, and the texture of the film itself is evident – the modest video bitrate of 19.6 Mbps supports the visuals nicely, and artifacts are seldom an issue.  Unfortunately there has been some untoward tampering with the master in the form of artificial edge enhancement.  While not so egregious as I’ve seen on some other titles it’s enough to keep The Omega Man from looking as much like film as it should.  Consider that room for improvement on any future edition.

Audio options are extensive on this all-region disc, but Warner lose points for neglecting to include a lossless track.  The original monophonic English recording is reasonably handled by the 192 kbps Dolby Digital encoding, but lacks the depth that a DTS-HD MA or PCM track could provide.  Abundant dubs are included – French, German, Italian, Spanish and Castellano – all in Dolby Digital 1.0 encodes.  Subtitles are even more comprehensive – English, English SDH, French, German, German SDH, Italian, Italian SDH, Castellano, Dutch, Korean, Spanish, Portuguese (Brazil), Portuguese, Danish, Finnish, Norsk and Swedish.

We lose Charlton Heston: Science Fiction Legend, but the rest of the supplements are duplicated from the earlier DVD – they are, unfortunately, SD only.  Starting things off is a making-off featurette so short it’s labelled as an introduction – Introduction by screenwriter Joyce Corrington and co-stars Eric Laneuville and Paul Koslo (4 minutes).  Next we get the vintage making-of featurette The Last Man Alive – The Omega Man (10 minutes), dominated by Charlton Heston’s discussions with an anthropologist.  The original theatrical trailer (3 minutes) rounds out the supplemental package.

There’s certainly room for complaints with Warner’s Blu-ray of The Omega Man, from the light extras to the lack of a lossless track to the edge enhancement on the transfer, but I can’t say that any of it drastically impeded my ability to enjoy the film.  The price is certainly right – $14.98 retail, with most shops offering it at considerably less.  If you’re a fan then you’ll likely find plenty to love here, rough edges and all.  Recommended.

in conclusion
Film: Very Good Video: Very Good – Audio: Good Supplements: Good
Packaging: Standard Blu-ray case.
Final Words: This early Blu-ray from Warner has a few niggling issues, but provides a substantial upgrade over the DVD edition at a price that’s hard to beat.  The Omega Man is still a blast, making this disc easy to endorse.

One thought on “The Omega Man

  1. One of my favorites too. When I was a kid (pre-home video days) I remember staying up late to catch it on the tube. I was a nerd and loved the idea of having a city to myself. And Zerbe was a creepy SOB.
    Two thumbs up.

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