1971's The Omega Man is the second of the three notable film adaptations of Richard Matheson's I Am Legend, bowing on HD DVD and Blu-ray just as Will Smith's wildly successful post-apocalyptic action remake roared into a couple thousand theaters. By far the least faithful to Matheson's novel, The Omega Man stars Charlton Heston as Dr. Robert Neville, a virologist who narrowly escaped a government-manufactured plague that wiped out most every trace of life on the planet. Seemingly the sole survivor of the contagion, Neville skulks the barren metropolis of Los Angeles, scouring for whatever nicities catch his eye to add to his lavish penthouse, muttering embittered one-liners to himself, and gunning down the infected mutants that the plague left in its wake. Neville may be the last man on Earth, but the city is teeming with these nocturnal mutants intensely sensitive to light.
The creatures in The Omega Man bear little resemblance to the vampiric beasts of I Am Legend. Violent and hellbent on destroying every last vestige of science, art, and philosophy from a dead race, these mutants are presented more like a fanatically religious cult than subhuman monsters. 'The Family', as they dub themselves, want desperately to rid their purified world of that lingering reminder of "the refuse of the past", while Neville systematically attempts to hunt down their nest and wipe them out once and for all. A couple of years into his sadistic, unrelenting search, Neville discovers something else -- a glimmer of hope for some sort of future for mankind, and one he has the means to see to fruition.
I remember rushing home from the theater after seeing Tim Burton's Batman to tune into the 1966 Adam West flick on TV, and I was instantly left with this baffled, jaw-agape expression plastered across my face. I can imagine people having much the same reaction when they first give The Omega Man a look after watching the 2007 take on I Am Legend. Admittedly, my tolerance for camp these days is a heckuva lot higher than most, so I still dig The Omega Man, but its deliberate pace, overwrought religious metaphors, and -- from the blaxploitation-era afros to the goofy, jazzy score -- hopelessly dated aesthetic will probably leave most viewers mashing the "Stop" button after the first twenty minutes.
The Omega Man opens like an action flick -- Neville plowing into a mutant engulfed in flames with his car, then whipping around and blasting another with a machine gun -- but it deliberately doesn't sustain that same manic energy. The battle between Neville and the charismatic Matthias (Anthony Zerbe) is played like more of a chess game, an analogy the movie somewhat heavy-handedly underlines. There's something kind of intriguing about the fact that the mutants are reasonably intelligent but, despite their numbers, are sorely outmatched by Neville's arsenal. The still of the night is broken by their high-pitched squeals as they push a catapult towards Neville's stronghold, but as they lob fiery balls at his penthouse, Neville almost disinterestedly strolls over to the window with a fire extinguisher and puts them out. At the same time, the fact that 'The Family' is so ineffective saps away a lot of the tension; they eventually do start racking up a body count, but it arrives far too late in the movie to build any lingering sense of dread. One of the movie's other flaws is the introduction of other survivors. Aside from Lisa -- a empowered black hellcat played by Rosalind Cash -- not a single one of them manages to leave an impression (while they're still alive, at least), and that dangling subplot feels like a waste of time when the end credits start to roll.
To The Omega Man's credit, it does have an extremely unconventional ending, something I can't fathom a major studio letting slide by these days. Even if the movie doesn't sustain any real tension, the expansive shots of just how deserted the once-bustling metropolis of Los Angeles has become are genuinely chilling, and moments like the lights abruptly going out in Neville's penthouse still manage to get the pulse racing.
The sales charts would certainly seem to suggest that I'm in the minority here, but I find myself much more excited about these sorts of catalog titles hitting HD DVD and Blu-ray than the $150 million summer tentpoles that Hollywood churns out year after year. While The Omega Man won't hold much appeal to an audience weaned on bigger-budgeted fare, I'm a devout fan of '70s camp and love the flick despite its many flaws. The uninitiated may want to opt for a rental first, but for those interested in something a little quirky and offbeat in high-def, The Omega Man still comes Recommended.
Video: I've watched scores of films from the 1970s in high definition on channels like HDNet Movies, most of which sport soft photography and are mired in grain. I wasn't expecting anything particularly different from The Omega Man, a modestly budgeted movie that's pushing forty these days, but this 2.39:1, VC-1-encoded presentation looks phenomenal. I was instantly struck by how sharp and colorful The Omega Man looks in high definition, boasting a depth and dimensionality I'm not used to seeing from movies of this particular vintage. Film grain is understandably prevalent throughout, although it's deftly compressed and shows no signs of being savagely smeared away through excessive noise reduction. A handful of scenes are peppered with small flecks of dust, but speckling is infrequent throughout the bulk of its 98 minute runtime. Viewers shouldn't go in expecting the glossy sheen of Will Smith's 2007 spin on the Matheson story or anything, but The Omega Man looks much, much better than I ever would've thought. Very impressive.
Audio: On the other hand, the monaural soundtrack -- encoded at the featherweight bitrate of 192Kbps -- isn't nearly as remarkable. This is a flat, lifeless, utilitarian track. One oddity is that dialogue will often sound somewhat clean (dated, of course, but still reasonably clear), but those gaps between lines are riddled with hiss. Perfectly listenable but not a single rung higher up the aural ladder than that.
Dolby Digital 1.0 dubs are offered in French, Spanish, German, and Italian, accompanied by an almost cartoonishly long list of subtitles.
Extras: The most notable extra -- at least in this first run of discs -- is $7 in 'Hollywood Movie Money' for Will Smith's I Am Legend. For those already mulling over giving the Will Smith remake of the Richard Matheson novel a look, this brings the sticker price of The Omega Man well below the $15 mark.
Other than that, the handful of extras are much the same as they were with the 2003 DVD release, and all of them are presented in standard definition. Co-writer Joyce H. Corrington and actors Eric Laneuville and Paul Koslo contribute a quick, nostalgic four minute retrospective meant to open the movie. "The Last Man Alive - The Omega Man" is a charmingly dated ten minute vintage featurette with a bit of behind the scenes footage, an explanation of just how the producers snagged those expansive shots of a completely deserted Los Angeles, and Charlton Heston delving into the psychology of being the last man on Earth. A three minute theatrical trailer rounds out the extras.
Conclusion: A campy but enduring cult classic, The Omega Man will probably bore the hell out of anyone expecting the same flavor of hypercaffeinated action as Will Smith's I Am Legend, but viewers who don't mind a '70s-style slow burn ought to be impressed with how well this nearly forty year old film shines in high definition. Recommended.
Related Reviews: DVD Talk has several reviews of Will Smith's I Am Legend, as well of reviews of The Last Man on Earth and the 2003 DVD release of The Omega Man.