Why The Omega Man is better than ever

Seeing Charlton Heston in glorious high definition reminds us that tough guys dominated the movies long before meterosexuals like Tom Cruise and Matt Damon. Man, I miss tough guy movies and The Expendables franchise isn’t really filling the void for the real deal. The Omega Man is among the first tough guy films with witty one-liners, which is pointed out not only in the special features, but by Tim Burton. In one scene Heston crashes his car and decides to take another. He has a humorous conversation with an imaginary car salesman who, in Heston’s lonesome mind, is trying to screw him over. Later, after being captured by the bad guys, Heston asks, “Are you fellas really with the Internal Revenue Service?”

The film opens with Charlton Heston’s character driving a convertible through deserted Los Angeles. It’s a pleasant day and he’s listening to Theme from a Summer Place on the vehicle’s 8-track player. Nothing can be mellower than this, one thinks, shortly before Heston spots movement in a window, which he immediately and recklessly riddles with machine gun bullets. (This is one reason the other survivors have stayed clear of him.) We instantly know then that we’re in good hands: competent direction which fully understands the importance of contrast and a cool, hip style, all announced right there in the span of sixty seconds or so.

The film’s so hip, in fact, the villainous ghouls wear mirror shades with their sacramental robes. Sure, it was silly in the 70s, maybe even distractingly so, but today it’s just awesome. Outside of vampires, have you ever seen non-humans try so hard to be cool? At first you think they’re wearing the sunglasses only because they’re sensitive to light, but once they reveal their white irises at a convenient plot point, they more or less ditch the shades for the remainder of the movie. Which kind of makes you feel bad for the actors who had to deal with the painful contact lenses back then, but I digress.

While Charlton Heston isn’t exactly the last man on Earth (an unfortunate cheat of which all three I Am Legend adaptations were guilty), it seems the last woman really is sassy black Rosalind Cash, who’s not the only prominent character in the film who wears an afro. The first time she meets Heston it’s with hilarious and humiliating timing, when he’s caressing the curves of a female mannequin, unaware of Cash’s presence. Naturally, she plays hard to get in the beginning, but we already know they’ll end up in bed together sooner than later.

Like I said, it’s all very cool, all very hip, and Cash’s character makes it all the more fun. Whereas most post-apocalyptic films feature torn and tattered wardrobes, the characters in Omega Man are shown “shopping” on a daily basis in abandoned stores. And man, are their clothes cool or what? Even cooler: they refer to their shotgun as their “credit card.”

The 70s cool factor is both the reason the film will remain too dated to be a classic and much more fun today than it ever was in its own time. The first words shared between Heston and Cash are at gunpoint: “My name’s Robert,” he says. She angrily replies, “Your name’s mud!”
That’s the kind of dialogue that makes me love movies like this, but I’m sure it was already feeling played out by then, what with racially tense dialogue dominating each and every exploitation film of the era and then some. Even though Heston shares one of the first interracial kisses in a major film, it feels like the screenwriters only put it there so they could get away with saying “right on” at predominantly white parties. That makes it all feel less about the changing times they were living in and more about the exploitation element alone.
And shit, I ain’t complaining. Anyone who’s ever read this blog knows I love me some gratuitous exploitation. The Omega Man’s chock full of it. To try to enjoy it on any other level means not to enjoy it at all. Pull your head out of your ass and just let it entertain you.
As for how to watch it, the Blu-Ray edition looks great, although it’s painfully obvious when motorcycle-driving Charlton Heston magically transforms into a stunt double with a very bad toupee. Also shitty is the inclusion of the same, bare bones special features which appeared on a DVD version ten years ago. Nonetheless, I haven’t enjoyed the picture more. Watch it before Tim Burton inevitably remakes it.

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