Back in Victorian times, there were no videos, trailers or DVD’s to remind us of great films; kids read books, and the description of The Omega Man sounded amazing to this kid. A future in which only one man survives, using unlimited weapons, any vehicle he wanted, living with extraordinary means as he battled an army of vampires for the planet’s future?
It came as something of a shock to finally see Boris Sagal’s sci-fi thriller and register just how 1971 it was. The casting of Charlton Heston as Neville positioned Omega Man amongst a dystopian series that included Planet of the Apes and Soylent Green, but his larger-than-life persona also engendered a certain dated political view. The term ‘white saviour’ probably wasn’t minted back then, but Heston’s love of weapons, alpha-male preening and portrayal of himself as a messianic figure sit uncomfortably with the groovy décor and Rosalind Cash’s portrayal of the last woman on earth.
‘ Are you a god?’ a child asks Neville; today’s audiences may be than less impressed, but Sagal’s film leans into such criticism. A scene where Neville sits in a cinema and watches his favourite film, Woodstock, which he sees as a comedy and enjoys in the company of his machine gun, suggests we’re meant to find his retro-conservativism amusing, but his willingness to shack up with Cash seems like racial opportunism and doesn’t strike sparks.
And yet such miscalculations don’t stop The Omega Man from having a cult appeal; there’s a James Bond-ian elan about some of the short-lived bursts of action, and a haunting appeal in the narrative tropes; the deserted city, the one person who carries the plague antidote in their blood; many of the clichés of dystopian future-worlds since find an early embodiment in this reactionary, yet entertaining film.
Kubrick brought the table; Heston’s “big three,” as I like to call ’em, set the table. Three icon films, not just in sci-fi, but film overall. I am sure Yul Brynner would have loved The Ulimate Warrior to be as revered as Heston’s apoc films. Then along came Kurt Russell.
Ultimate Warrior is another film that the BBC used to think was good Monday night fare; Omega Man has a haunting quality that makes it probably the most enjoyable of that big three now, and Escape from New York took it to another level. They certainly used to throw a good apocalypse in those days.