Top critical review
A great novel becomes an adequate film
on February 20, 2004
If you haven't read it before, the short novel "I Am Legend" by Richard Matheson is one of the classics of horror/science fiction. Grab a copy today (right here on Amazon, simple as can be!) and read it before watching this movie adaptation of the novel. (This is actually the second movie version of "I Am Legend." The first is the elusively unavailable Italian film staring Vincent Price, "The Last Man on Earth.")
"Omega Man" is a movie that, sadly, abandons most of what made its source novel great: the aching loneliness of the only human (or so he believes) left on a planet of bestial vampires. The movie version jettisons the vampires, replacing them with a wacky albino cult that wears sunglasses and glitter-rock robes and have launched themselves on an anti-technology crusade. In a short documentary featurette on the DVD, one of the two screenwriters (the same team responsible for the last and least entry in the "Planet of the Apes" series) explains that they thought vampires were overused, and so opted instead for these albinos. It was a huge mistake; eliminating the vampires literally bleeds (excuse the pun) the story of the fear that it needs to work. The screenwriters also altered Matheson's story in other ways, like having the hero discover a cadre of human survivors with whom he joins forces, and by the halfway point, all traces of the fantastic original story have been lost, including its strange twist of an ending.
To alter a novel for film, of course, is no crime in itself, but the end product in this case is poor, lacking tension, and pretty flat. The film has dated terribly in ways that go beyond the funky albino outfits: it has the kitschy look of a lot of 70s television shows, and director Boris Sagal (a TV veteran) is probably responsible for most of this. If you want to revel in the movie's funky 70s style, you'll probably get a kick out of it (the score is equally dated), but people looking for the serious science fiction film promised will tire of the music, the glam-rock bad guys in sunglasses and glittering robes, and the faux-blaxploitation dialogue. Heston, in the middle of his science-fiction period, appeals to people who enjoy the camp angle, but he is terribly miscast. He projects none of the isolation and despair that the character or Neville should, and it therefore becomes difficult to invest yourself in his situation.
"Omega Man" does have a few decent tense moments, and Anthony Zerbe is fun in a nutty way as the albino leader. The DVD has a couple of extras. There's a short vintage documentary with interviews with Heston where he talks about science fiction. Like most promotional featurettes, there's not much about the making of the film and a lot of hard sell, but it is enjoyable seeing vintage advertising, and Heston's a great character even when he isn't acting. There's also a short modern retrospective on the film, with an interview with two of the actors (not Heston), and one of the screenwriters. Not much information here either, and they predictably give the film more praise than it deserves. There are also a few screens of text describing the science fiction films that Heston appeared in during this period.
Yes, "Omega Man" has some charms, but only people with a love of cult 70s movies and their styles, or people who have read the novel, will really want to see it. If you are a science fiction or horror fan, there are a lot worse ways to kill 100 minutes -- but you should invest that time in Matheson's novel instead if you haven't read it, and then decide if you want to spend the extra time with this film. (Hopefully, the Vincent Price version, which is closer to the novel, will become available on DVD one day.)