Friday, December 21, 2018

Playing with Tropes: The Omega Man

One of the great things about introducing the “Playing with Tropes” section to the blog is that I finally feel I can cover off this 1971 film directed by Boris Sagal. Based on Richard Matheson’s I am legend, it is arguably the most famous direct make of that book, if not the most accurate (that honour remains with the Last man on Earth).

In making it, Sagal eschewed the vampire aspect that was central to the original novel and made a film steeped in Cold War paranoia, which nevertheless still contained genre tropes by the very nature of its adaptation (unlike Night of the Living Dead, which was part-inspired by the novel but arguably birthed its own genre). Like the Last Man on Earth the film threw in a Christian-centric religious aspect, more overt in this, indicating that film makers just can’t let alone with such a secular source as Matheson’s novel.

Charlton Heston as Neville
It starts with a lone car in the city, driven by Neville (Charlton Heston), he plays music on an 8-track and at one point stops to shoot at movement behind a window. As the opening credits roll, we see that there are still bodies out in the city. Neville crashes the car as he takes a corner and nearly hits an armoured truck – the robbers’ decomposed bodies still where they fell. He takes a jerrycan of gas and his gun and picks another car from a used car salesroom. In the showroom he reacts to a pinup calendar but it is the dates he reacts to – this shows us that it was 1975 when the world ended.

never stuck in traffic
After stopping off to watch Woodstock (1970) – an unusual film for Neville as one imagines the military doctor had little in common with the hippy generation but, as he intimates, the film has been showing for three years and so was likely the only film in the small theatre. The other thing to note is that the film shows crowds of people, something he misses. As he leaves the theatre he starts to realise that the sun is setting, when suddenly the payphones all start ringing – he realises that they are an auditory hallucination and wills them to silence. He races the sun home.

shooting an infected
As he opens the garage door a cowled figure pours petrol from an adjacent window at the front of the car and starts a fire, one jumps into the car and Neville races into the garage, using momentum to throw the attacker off and shooting him. Two more assailants have got in the garage as he sets off the closing mechanism. They too die. These are our replacement for the vampires of I am Legend – an infected group who call themselves the Family. In the film Neville remembers the start of the end and so, before we look at the Family, let’s cover that.

Neville's former life
It is the time of the Sino/Russian border war – a burgeoning war of two Superpowers (and, whilst there were border skirmishes between those two powers in 1969, it is interesting that the American filmmakers imply that the USA is an innocent victim of their aggressions). Later we discover that germ warfare was used and a plague hit America (and, we assume, the rest of the world). The symptoms are rapid – choking, unconsciousness and then death within minutes. Neville had developed an experimental vaccine but his pilot succumbed to the plague as they transported the sample by helicopter and they crashed. Neville used the vaccine on himself and is immune.

the Family
So, what about the Family? The disease seems to be slower acting in some. We meet a group of kids and young adults who are infected but without symptoms. The Family are infected with symptoms listed as “blindness in light, albinism, psychotic delusions, occasional stages of torpor”. This makes them pale of skin – and I’ll touch on race in a second – with the mark of affliction, whitened iris and small pupils, as well as open sores. They might be called psychotic and delusional but they just appear to have a mutual hatred of technology and the old world – which their leader, Mathias (Anthony Zerbe, the Matrix reloaded), identifies as the source of their curse. The transition from non-symptomatic infection to Family seems to be brought on by age and can be a drawn-out process or occur in minutes.

Neville not only represents the old world to them (a creature to be eradicated in order that the world can move on) but he is feared by both the Family and the kids alike as he tends to shoot indiscriminately at anything that moves. He is captured by the family and they threaten to cleanse him with fire in something that looks a lot like the inquisitions’ auto-da-fé. Indeed, the Family all wear monkish robes and he is announced as the dead (reversing the status of living corpse from vampire to hunter – after all he is the Other). Interestingly he later calls the family Half-dead. The kids rescue him and, as he is not infected, he can make a vaccine from his blood for a young man who is slowly turning, Richie (Eric Laneuville, Moonlight).

Neville and Lisa
There is much that could be written about the racial aspects of the Omega Man. The disease creates a new race it seems – on turning one seems to align automatically with the Family and young doctor Dutch (Paul Koslo) describes someone turning rapidly and attacking him. Yet, Ritchie and his sister Lisa (Rosalind Cash) had spent time with the Family early on, as the Family removed the bodies of the dead and cremated them, until the Family started to notice the differences between them. The Family do become albino, the condition whitening their skins no matter their ethnicity but Neville seems to represent the privileged white – one Family member, Zachary (Lincoln Kilpatrick), rather than relying on the anti-technology narrative Mathias espouses (and indeed we see him carry a gun, something forbidden) calls Neville’s base “Honky paradise” – though Mathias berates him for using the language of old hatreds. Neville makes a racial assumption later, suggesting that Lisa is from Harlem (and thus will never have seen a river teeming with fish). The whole film could be examined for its racial commentary.

Jesus Christ pose
A strong narrative is the religious aspect and I have already mentioned the monkish robes (although Lisa’s robe, when she turns, seems to make her look more vampish than monkish) and the idea that heretic science has brought about the end of the world, the infection is a curse and Neville was to be cleansed in a way reminiscent of the inquisition. Yet Neville also represents Christ. He is asked whether he is God, by one of the kids (Lisa is dismissive as to whether he is even a doctor, never mind a deity). It is through his blood that a cure can be found and when the Family wreck his base he manages to save a bottle of his blood, which the dying Neville passes to Dutch. He is killed by a spear (though it does not remain in him as it did with Vincent Price in the Last Man on Earth) and dies in a blood red fountain (rather than the church Price’s character dies in). Yet his pose in death, both arms and legs, is based on the common portrayal of Christ from a crucifix.

Lisa turned
So… genre tropes. The main, of course, is that the film recognisably is lifted from one of the classic vampire books. Like the book there is a twisting of the trope of the Other, with the hunter being made that and the infected/vampires being the new normal. Like the book the “answer” is in blood – though the cure is science based and not naturally occurring as in the original (in the book the Last Man is immune due to a bat bite before the plague, although he does use science as he investigates the plague). The pallor of the Family corresponds to the paleness of the vampire and the fact that they are now nocturnal and can see at night is a trope in itself. Given its heritage perhaps this is not as trope heavy as some other vehicles but it still plays with tropes.

The imdb page is here.

On DVD @ Amazon US

On DVD @ Amazon UK

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